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Many churches are now holding outdoor worship services with proper distancing as COVID-19 cases rise. Getty Images
  • Churches in Texas, Alabama, and other places have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks after holding indoor services.
  • Many churches have switched to outdoor services or online sermons as COVID-19 cases increase.
  • Experts say worshippers should follow safety guidelines such as physical distancing and mask wearing if they do go to services.

On Sundays, hugs and smiles are now being replaced by bursts of heart emoticons flying across a screen.

As COVID-19 continues to grip the nation, Sunday school classes at the First Congregational Church of Canton Center in Connecticut have shifted to Facebook Live with children and their families tuning in for a virtual chat, book reading, and message.

“I wanted to be able to have some sort of connection with the kids because it’s a really tough thing to be like ‘here’s this scary virus and you’re not going to school,’” said Sarah Pradhan, the director of the church’s faith formation who started the meetings in March when lockdowns began.

“It’s a time where I feel like a lot of people need to lean into their faith. So, we needed to have some sort of presence,” Pradhan said.

Places of worship all over the country are facing the challenge of how to connect with their parishioners during the pandemic.

While some are coming up with creative ways to gather — via Zoom or distanced outdoor services — others are ignoring public health guidelines and, in some cases, spreading the virus.

COVID-19 is spreading at religious services across the country and in some areas, worshippers may be tempting fate.

In Texas, more than 50 congregants at the Calvary Chapel of San Antonio tested positive for the virus after in-person services were held.

In Alabama, more than 40 people developed COVID-19 after attending a multi-day church revival.

Both states are currently in a federal “red zone” of serious COVID-19 outbreaks, which means they’re reporting more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week.

As cases surge in California, Los Angeles County health officials are investigating several churches for holding gatherings despite restrictions. There have also been a series of large religious gatherings on beaches without distancing or masks.

Experts warn that religious services have all the elements the novel coronavirus needs to spread: close proximity to others, singing, and the sharing of materials.

“It’s really quite simple: The virus will take advantage of every opportunity it encounters to propagate,” Dr. Michael S. Saag, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious disease at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told Healthline.

Saag said that the likelihood of a single person contracting the virus in a gathering of 40 like the one in Strawberry, Alabama, is more than 65 percent right now.

“So [at] the church gathering, at least one, and possibly more individuals were already infected when they came to the event,” he explained. “We know that the peak time of transmission occurs in the 24-hour period prior to the onset of symptoms, so those who were infected at the time of the revival did not have a clue they were infected and unwittingly infected the others in the room.”

While there hasn’t been a church outbreak in Colorado — a state not currently in the red zone — it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

According to recent reports, 500 congregants sang together at a church service in Colorado Springs while few wore masks. Several churches in the state are defiant about mask wearing.

It’s behavior that worries Dr. Michelle Barron, the medical director of infection prevention and control at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

“I think unfortunately the whole mask thing and many of these things have become so politicized there’s certainly so much information out there that’s just terrible and it’s left a lot of people on the fence in terms of really understanding what’s at stake,” Barron told Healthline.

“I think if you just broke it down to: your neighbor or your friend may be healthy and fine and is worshipping with you, but they live with someone who’s got cancer, or they have an infant at home, or you brought the infant with you along with your grandma [to church]. Those are highly vulnerable populations and by wearing the mask you are protecting them,” she said.

“I don’t imagine you would ever want somebody to be in direct harm because of something you did,” Barron added.

Barron also said that the social experience of going to church poses risks.

“There can be hugging. There can be handshakes. There can be singing. There’s all these lovely wonderful elements that are part of that experience,” she said. “I have yet to be at a service that is short — most of these are 30 minutes or longer — and then after the service you then go get coffee. This could be a multi-hour potential exposure event even without thinking about it.”

While worshipping outdoors is better, most people still have difficulty distancing in that type of situation.

“The problem again becomes when you get too close to each other,” Barron said. “It’s natural. We are drawn to people and you want to be able to be near them. It seems very awkward to constantly talk from a distance and wearing masks also is very unnatural.”

Barron understands those frustrations, “but long term we will get through this quicker if we just follow the rules.”

Many congregations are doing their best to be cautious and come up with unique ways to gather.

The Love in Action Community Ministries in Battle Creek, Michigan, began holding outdoor services on July 12 as the state reopened.

While masks are encouraged but not required at these services, Pastor John Boyd told Healthline that most people wear them and going forward he plans to emphasize the wearing of facial coverings even more.

“We don’t want to be a cause of [cases] going in the wrong direction,” said Boyd, who previously worked in the healthcare field.

Three different color wristbands are offered at these services, each signifying the attendee’s comfort level with social interaction.

“Even with the mask on, some people still don’t want contact at all — totally get it — and so you wear a red wristband,” explained Boyd, who wears a yellow wristband. “Yellow is ‘I’m OK with some contact. But don’t come in for a hug because I’m not ready for that.’ Green was full go ahead, people didn’t mind hugging. The wristbands have been a really big hit.”

Boyd said they’re trying to do their best to “stay as safe as possible and provide that coming together — people really need that — people didn’t realize, myself included, how much we miss being around people.”

He’s also not telling parishioners that physically being at the church is of the utmost importance.

“Being at the building isn’t the cream of the crop,” he said, noting the online streaming of these services. “Technology has provided us a great way to reach out to people and reach people.”

At the Wesley United Methodist Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in-person services — with masks, distancing, and temperature checks at the door — resumed on June 21. People were asked to call or email in advance of their visit.

Other safety measures were in place such as a hand sanitizer station outside the sanctuary.

The singers and pastor were more than 20 feet away from the congregation. Congregants were also asked not to sing, and the pastor greeted everyone outside afterward with a wave or virtual hug.

“It was triple the work, but we did it,” Pastor Grace Cajiuat told Healthline. “But every day, I would look at our city’s numbers and the county’s numbers of cases and deaths. It kept me awake or would wake me up in the middle of the night worried.”

The July 19 service ended up being the final in-person service.

“There were too many who came who didn’t let us know and I got nervous,” Cajiuat said. “We have a small sanctuary that could squeeze in 150. We squeaked in with safe physical distance, but that was a close call.”

Additionally, that day at the door, one person’s temperature registered nearly 100 degrees — an awkward scenario that they hadn’t prepared for. The next day the church decided to suspend in-person services due to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

“Like many churches, we have many high risk members,” Cajiuat explained. “[We] agreed that it wasn’t worth having in-person worship with the big spike in cases.”

“It was apparent that we had to stop the in-person and just offer the e-service until numbers would merit going back to phase two. It was a difficult but necessary call,” she said.

Parishioners are “graciously” accepting of the services going virtual.

“It is a tough time for churches now. I would rather err on the abundance of caution than be the cause of sickness,” Cajiuat said.

Rabbi Ron Shulman of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, California is on the same page.

When the shutdown began in California in March, his services immediately went online. The services are available on Facebook Live and Zoom and feature three clergy members in the sanctuary.

“We wanted you to be able to see the sanctuary, wanted you to see the Torah scrolls, we wanted you to feel like you were having as an authentic experience as you could. The way our building is configured and our cameras and such, we’re able to do that,” Shulman told Healthline.

“The feedback we’re getting is overwhelming,” he said. “While everybody misses being together and hopes this will end soon, this is fulfilling their needs at the moment absolutely.”

As San Diego County experiences a spike in cases, Shulman has thoughts on church gatherings seen on California beaches.

“I think it’s irresponsible to be gathering. Our religious tradition teaches that health and safety and public welfare come first. That you serve God by taking care of one another. And that there’s an absolute circumstance here where everybody has to be a little more humble and a little more interested in the common good than any self-interest,” Shulman said.

“Fundamentally, I understand everybody’s angst and pain and longing for what they used to have,” he said. “I don’t understand why religious institutions should behave any differently toward the common good than anybody else.”

If going to church or synagogue is something you deem an essential activity, consider two things first, said Barron.

“[First] assess your own heath — what are your risk factors? Are you healthy? Do you have any underlying medical issues? Are you putting yourself potentially in a scenario in which you could get sick and you’re going to have more severe illness?” she said.

“If that is the situation, maybe it’s not worthwhile attending this in-person,” she added.

“There are so many ways to be able to access these communities now,” Barron said. “They do things on TV. There are videos. There are podcasts. There [are] all sorts of ways where you can still have that enriching event. You could even have somebody FaceTime it for you — and that way you can still be part of the community without having the risk.”

Secondly, ask yourself: Do you live with or spend time with someone that might be at risk?

“You’re healthy and fine, but you went [to church], you didn’t wear a mask, or you just got into the moment, got too close to people. Who do you live with and are you now putting them at risk?” said Barron.

“Those are things to really think through before you decide to go because again you would not want to put someone that you live with or that you care for in a position that they could get ill from this,” she said.

If you’re in a state such as Alabama where a church outbreak recently occurred, Saag said you shouldn’t attend services until infection rates are lower.

“Stay at home as much as you can. When you go out, avoid crowds of more than 5 people and any group of people where masks are not being worn,” he said. “Wear a mask any time you are around any other people.”

“When encountering others, keep physical distance of at least 6 feet and try to keep as much of your activity around others outdoors,” he added.

Additionally, Saag stressed the ease and convenience of gathering virtually instead of in-person.

“There are other ways to ‘gather’ for religious services in our modern world via electronic media,” he noted. “Fortunately, we have this as a viable option and many congregations are using this approach very successfully and in many cases, quite creatively.”

“We are living in unprecedented times,” he said, “and unfortunately, sacrifices need to be made in order to lower the infection rate and prevent further deaths. The question is: Are we willing to do what it takes to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities?”

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