Churches leave virtual services behind, prepare to meet in person again :: WRAL.com
Angier, North Carolina – After weeks of online or outdoor service and a lawsuit to force an end to state-ordered restrictions on religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, some ministers say they are ready to welcome their congregations inside their sanctuaries on Sunday.
“Just being able to see each other and that feeling of coming together and feeling here on sacred ground and being together as a body of believers is sure to be a special time,” said Chris Turner, Senior Pastor of Neill’s Creek. Baptist Church of Angier.
Turner said church leaders have developed detailed plans to keep members safe while they worship.
A second Sunday service was added to help reduce the number of people inside and help them exercise social distancing, he said. All other benches will be blocked and the sanctuary will be cleaned between services.
“No matter which entrance you come to, you will see a hand sanitizing station,” he said.
Ushers will open the doors for people to come in and out, the nursery will remain closed, and masks will be provided – but not mandatory.
“We just felt like it was a matter of individual choice in this particular circumstance,” Turner said.
Churches went online early during the pandemic, and when state officials began to ease stay-at-home restrictions this month and resume some public activities, many of them moved to open-air services where people could congregate, but apart.
But some ministers felt the state was still too restrictive, noting that companies were allowed to have dozens – sometimes hundreds – of people inside when they were limited to 10. Dozens of ministers turned out. rallied in Raleigh against the restrictions, and a number of sheriffs said they would not enforce them.
Finally, a federal judge ruled last weekend that the restrictions violated churches’ First Amendment rights and overturned them.
Statewide restrictions were relaxed again on Friday, but Gov. Roy Cooper continues to urge churches to pray online or outside to limit the spread of the virus.
President Donald Trump on Friday denounced restrictions on churches, deeming places of worship “essential” during the pandemic. Trump has threatened to “override” governors if their states don’t follow the new federal recommendations, even though he doesn’t have the power 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 on June 7.
“They want to be able to do whatever they want. If they want to come together, they can come together, ”Hollifield said.
Catholic churches in the area will also 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 would proceed with caution, calling it an “exciting but anxious moment”.
“We cannot assume that because there are no public health restrictions on worship services, there are no public health risks,” Zarama said in a letter to priests from the region. “I … entrust each of you as pastors with the ability to carefully adapt the best way to serve your parishioners and return to offering the sacraments while maintaining charity and respect for the health of others.”
Diocesan guidelines say churches should follow the 50 percent capacity guidelines that many businesses now observe and that families stay 6 feet from each other in pews. In addition, ministers will use hand sanitizer before distributing Communion, the chalice will no longer be shared at Mass, and people will not shake hands as a sign of peace.
State health officials also recommend that places of worship require masks for indoor services, limit the use of Bibles and collection trays, provide handkerchiefs for people to cover coughs, and open windows to air circulation.
“I really think people will show up,” Turner said of his Neill’s Creek Baptist congregation. “I’ve probably had 12 to 15 people in our church telling me that they just weren’t ready for this and we fully understand that.”
New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for places of worship:
- Limit the use of “shared objects” such as hymns and Bibles that can be passed from person to person
- Suspend or decrease singing, singing or recitation during services – these practices can help spread the virus
- Hold religious services in a well-ventilated area or organize outdoor services
- Practice social distancing in places of worship
- Limit the size of gatherings according to guidelines from state and local authorities
- Face coverings, hand washing and disinfectants are encouraged