On Memorial Day, the California Department of Public Health announced the statewide reopening of places of worship for religious services and in-store retail shopping. Modifications are required to keep Californians safe and limit the spread of COVID-19. Nationally, though, churches are divided. Some are anxious to begin worship services, others, not so much.
There has been substantial blow-back to President Donald Trump’s sweeping pronouncement Friday that states must treat all churches and other houses of worship as essential under coronavirus lockdown orders “right now.” Trump said if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.
“As pastor of PFC, I announce to all members…our ministry will NOT be involved in any political ploy of such a dangerous decision …to play to our religious sensibilities for political leverage,” wrote Donald A. McClurkin Jr., senior pastor at Perfecting Faith Church in Freeport, NY. His Facebook post continued:
“To suggest and instruct churches to reopen without meeting specific metrics given by the scientific medical experts is highly irresponsible, fool-hearty and potentially dangerous to our wellbeing! ESPECIALLY TO THOSE IN HEAVILY EFFECTED AREAS!
“This political ploy to gain favor and votes from the faith-based community is blatant …and will not be considered over my (our) pastoral duties to CARE for the members of the body of Christ! Our digital live-streams will ADEQUATELY serve the people LOCAL AND GLOBALLY until such time IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE when we can gather again!”
In California, under new guidance, places of worship can hold religious services and funerals that limit attendance to 25 percent of a building’s capacity – or up to 100 attendees, whichever is lower – upon approval by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“Together, our actions have helped bend the curve and reduce infections in our state. As sectors continue to open with changes that aim to lower risk, remember that COVID-19 is still present in our communities,” said Dr. Sonia Angell, State Public Health Officer and director of the California Department of Public Health. “As more of us may be leaving our homes, keeping physical distance, wearing face coverings in public, and washing your hands frequently are more important than ever to help protect yourself and those around you.”
The new guidance for religious services and cultural ceremonies encourages organizations to continue online services and activities, including to protect individuals who are most at risk for more severe COVID-19, including older adults and people with specific medical conditions.
To reopen for religious services and funerals, places of worship must:
• Establish and implement a COVID-19 prevention plan for every location, train staff on the plan, and regularly evaluate workplaces for compliance.
• Train employees and volunteers on COVID-19, including how to prevent it from spreading and which underlying health conditions may make individuals more susceptible to contracting the virus.
• Implement cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
• Set physical distancing guidelines.
• Recommend that staff and guests wear cloth face coverings, and screen staff for temperature and symptoms at the beginning of their shifts.
• Set parameters around or consider eliminating singing and group recitations. These activities dramatically increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. For this reason, congregants engaging in singing, particularly in the choir, and group recitation should wear face coverings at all times and when possible, these activities should be conducted outside with greater than 6-foot distancing.
In 21 days, the department, in consultation with local departments of public health, will review and assess the impact of the religious services guidelines and provide further direction as part of a phased-in restoration of activities. This 21-day interval accounts for seven days for religious communities to prepare and reopen in addition to a 14-day incubation period of COVID-19.
Grant J. Hagiya, Los Angeles area resident bishop for the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church, emailed a special Memorial Day letter to church congregations, which besides honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice and thanking those now on the frontlines of the pandemic, also warned of the dangers of opening too soon.
“We have witnessed some of our national and state leaders proclaim that it is safe for our churches to return to open and public worships,” Hagiya wrote. “I do not believe these decisions are based solely on sound medical advice and practice, but rather a rush to reopen everything due to the pressures of popularity or the bottom line of reviving the economy.
“There will be major adjustments to our worship services until a vaccine is discovered, mass produced and administered to everyone. We really hope that some form of outdoor worship can be created to begin with. Our sanctuaries are some of the worst places to protect people from the virus, due to poor ventilation and an enclosed space. So, outdoor worship is preferred if possible.
“This also involves the banning of public singing as all the research shows that this can spread the virus precipitously. The Skagit Valley choir practice in the state of Washington is the prime example, where one person infected 87% of those attending the three-hour choir practice, and tragically two died of COVID-19.
“One additional caution will be very difficult for us: We strongly urge that those over 65 or who have underlying medical conditions avoid public worship at this time.
“Our Book of Discipline is quite clear that we cannot ban anyone from attending our worship services, so those who are in those categories and are willing to risk their health and safety by coming to physical worship must be accepted. However, the church must make some kind of arrangement for their safety, in a separate room or section of the sanctuary.
This is the reason that online or streamed worship services should be continued indefinitely. It will be a way for those who are 65+ or who have medical conditions can safely participate while remaining at home.
“The state of California released new guidelines Monday to allow for the reopening of churches and other places of worship for in-person services.”
The new guidelines also include:
• Offering plates (and similar items) should not be passed around between worshippers
• The sharing of items like prayer books, cushions and prayer rugs is discouraged
•High traffic areas, like pews and lobbies, should be frequently disinfected
• Microphones, instruments and other items on pulpit and podiums should be disinfected between uses
• Consider shortening services to minimize the amount of time people are congregated together
• Places of worship should consider using disposable seat covers and dispose of them between services
• Seating and podium areas must be rearranged to allow for 6 feet of space between people
• Open doors and windows to encourage fresh air to flow inside
Places of worship are also encouraged by state guidelines to continue offering remote and online services. They should also meet outside to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 wherever possible.
The guidelines also ask places of worship to “strongly consider discontinuing singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets.”
Concerts, holiday events and other especially large gatherings should remain canceled for the time being.
“In spite of the President labeling churches as ‘essential,’ good common sense suggest we maintain our safer at home policy to stop the speed of coronavirus during this once in a life time pandemic,” wrote Pastor Gary Bernard Williams of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Los Angeles in his Facebook post. “There have been a number of pastors, bishops and church members who have either died or become ill with COVID-19 after attending church services. Sisters and brothers, the ‘church’ is not and will never be just a building, it is the people of faith, their collective work and the ministries of the ones who really love Jesus Christ, who are still finding ways and means to help ‘the least of these,’ as is our mandate in Matthew 25.
“Let’s not allow ourselves to be manipulated by political and economic expediency to place our people in harm’s way. I will continue to work at developing and creating different ways to stay connected to the people of Saint Mark UMC LA and to the greater South Central Los Angeles community through our efforts on social media.
“Don’t be fooled it’s not time to reopen our church. I pray that you will worship with us or somewhere else in the morning to have your soul revived. God has our backs.”