Polish pilgrims head for holy site despite virus risks

Catholic worshiper holds a rosary as she takes part in celebrations of the Assumption of Mary at Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland

Thousands of Polish pilgrims were making their way to the holiest site in the staunchly Catholic country on Thursday, shrugging off record COVID-19 infection data that has forced authorities to tighten restrictions in some counties.

Daily recorded cases have topped 800 three times in the past week, far above earlier levels, leading authorities to cancel big events and urge Poles taking advantage of the sunshine to follow social distancing and sanitary guidelines.

Singing songs and carrying banners, people converged on the Jasna Gora monastery in the southern city of Czestochowa, where the Black Madonna of Czestochowa icon has been venerated by pilgrims since the Middle Ages.

The feast of Assumption, marked by Catholics as the day when Jesus’ mother Mary rose into heaven, falls on August 15.

Extra measures in place this year include volunteers disinfecting surfaces and stalls offering free hand sanitizer.

“Pilgrims can come to us and get a free mask if they have forgotten to take one, they can drink water and they can measure their temperature,” Marta, a volunteer standing at a stall next the road in Czestochowa told private broadcaster TVN.

An estimated 16,000 pilgrims will visit the monastery in August, according to Polish state-run news agency PAP.

Some have split in to smaller groups, each walking a section of the route for a day before heading home and leaving another group to take up the journey, to avoid crowding.

However, some fear that this year’s event could lead to an increase in cases in the city of over 220,000 people. Outbreaks in Malaysia, South Korea and the United States have followed religious gatherings.

“The mayor made an appeal to pilgrims to visit Czestochowa, but next year,” said Rafal Kusal, head of Czestochowa’s Crisis Management Department.

“They are welcome, but the recent increase in the number of cases may cause outbreaks of infection in the city.”

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