Churches leave virtual services behind, prepare to meet in person once again
Posted May 22, 2020 7:30 p.m. EDT
Updated May 23, 2020 7:59 a.m. EDT
Angier, N.C. — After weeks of online or outdoor services and a lawsuit to force an end to state-ordered restrictions on church gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, some ministers say they're ready to welcome their congregations back inside their sanctuaries on Sunday.
"Just being able to see one another and that sense of coming together and feeling like we are here on sacred ground and being together as a body of believers, it will certainly be a special time," said Chris Turner, senior pastor of Neill’s Creek Baptist Church in Angier.
Turner said church leaders have developed extensive plans to keep members safe as they worship.
A second Sunday service was added to help cut down of the number of people inside and help them exercise social distancing, he said. Every other pew will be blocked off, and the sanctuary will be cleaned between services.
“No matter what entrance you come to, you are going to see a hand sanitizing station," he said.
Ushers will open doors for people to get in and out, the nursery will remain closed and masks will be provided — but not required.
“We just felt like that was a matter of individual choice in this particular circumstance," Turner said.
Churches went online early during the pandemic, and when state officials started easing stay-at-home restrictions this month and resuming some public activities, many of them moved to outdoor services where people could gather together, but apart.
But some ministers felt the state was still being too restrictive, noting that businesses were allowed to have dozens – sometimes hundreds – of people inside while they were limited to 10. Scores of ministers rallied in Raleigh against the restrictions, and a number of sheriffs said they wouldn't enforce them.
Finally, a federal judge ruled last weekend that the restrictions violated the churches' First Amendment rights and struck them down.
Statewide restrictions were eased again on Friday, but Gov. Roy Cooper continues to urge churches to worship online or outdoors to limit the spread of the virus.
President Donald Trump railed against restrictions on churches Friday, deeming places of worship "essential" during the pandemic. Trump threatened to "override" governors if their states don't follow new federal recommendations, even though he lacks the authority to do so.
Milton Hollifield, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said the majority of the 4,400 churches he represents will resume indoor services June 7.
“They want to be able to do what they want to do. If they want to gather, they can gather," Hollifield said.
Area Catholic churches also will resume indoor Mass in the coming weeks, according to Bishop Luis Zarama of the Diocese of Raleigh, which covers the eastern half of North Carolina. But he said they will move ahead cautiously, calling it "an exciting but anxious time."
"We cannot assume that because there are no public health restrictions on worship services that there are no public health risks," Zarama said in a letter to area priests. "I ... entrust to each of you as pastors the ability to prudently adapt how best to serve your parishioners and return to offering the sacraments while maintaining charity and respect for the health of others."
Guidance from the diocese states that churches should follow the 50 percent capacity guidelines many businesses are now observing and that families stay 6 feet apart in pews. Also, ministers will use hand sanitizer before passing out communion, the chalice will no longer be shared at Mass and people also won't shake hands as a sign of peace.
State health officials also recommending places of worship require masks for indoor services, limit the use of Bibles and collection trays, provide tissues for people to cover coughs and open windows for air circulation.
“I definitely think people will show up," Turner said of his Neill’s Creek Baptist congregation. "I have had probably 12 to 15 people within our church that have told me they are just not ready for that and we completely understand that."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new guidance for houses of worship:
- Limit the use "shared objects," like hymnals and bibles that may be passed from person-to-person
- Suspend or decrease singing, chanting or reciting during services -- those practices can contribute to the spread of the virus
- Hold church services in a well-ventilated area or hold outdoor services
- Practice social distancing in houses of worship
- Limit the size of gatherings based on guidance from state and local authorities
- Face coverings, hand washing and sanitizers are encouraged