The religious community is invited to attend virtual services during the holidays


As the trajectory of coronavirus cases continues to increase across the state and in Austin, local leaders are encouraging communities of faith to virtually come together over the holidays to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease it caused by the coronavirus, and ensuring the area does not face more stringent health restrictions.

In a letter to church leaders last week, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and Austin Mayor Steve Adler called for places of worship to voluntarily host vacation services virtually.

“During this time of year, many of us seek to reconnect with our faith, family and friends to restore our spirits,” the letter said. “As our community heads into this important time, we are writing to once again ask for your voluntary assistance in keeping our community safe and to help prevent Austin-Travis County from moving to Step 5 during the vacation.”

Stage 5 refers to the more stringent restrictions recommended in Austin Public Health’s risk-based guidelines, which provide advice to those most at risk of having the most severe symptoms of COVID-19. High-risk residents include people over 65, obese, or with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

As part of Step 5, health officials would recommend a curfew, urge restaurants and businesses to revert to delivery and take-out only, and call for the elimination of extracurricular school activities.

Places of worship across Texas closed in March to help fight the spread of the coronavirus, but they were allowed to reopen in April under new safety guidelines that included limiting capacity, wearing covers -faces and sitting position 6 feet apart.

County officials on Friday reported 415 new cases of coronavirus and 4,044 active cases – the highest daily count to date – and 516 deaths in total.

Local officials said the increase in the number of cases is a cause for concern over the spread in the community, hospital admissions and the capacity of intensive care units. The uncontrolled spread in the community could have devastating effects on the elderly and those whose compromised physical condition makes them more vulnerable.

As of Friday, 332 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 and 53 were admitted that day.

According to Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David’s HealthCare hospitals, their 2,473 staffed beds are 82% occupied and their 483 intensive care unit beds are 80% occupied.

“If this rate continues, experts tell us that we will soon reach a crisis,” the letter said. “We need your continued diligence to avoid reaching a crisis point and urge you to consider making your vacation services virtual.”

People attend a Sunday service at St. Albert the Great Catholic Church, where there are strict rules about wearing congregational masks and keeping their distance.

Make alternative plans

Several places of worship remained online, offering services and programs through Facebook and Zoom.

Reverend Hilary Marchbanks, senior pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in North Austin, said the shrine and campus have been closed since March. She started running online services, which she said reached up to 350 people on a Sunday.

She knows it has been difficult for some not to worship in person, and she understands how family and friends want to come together in faith for the holidays, but the church plans to continue its services online. She was in the process of registering her Christmas Eve service a week in advance.

Hanukkah, the eight-night festival of lights, like several other Jewish holidays this year, has been observed virtually by many congregations.

Rabbi Alan Freedman, senior rabbi at Beth Shalom Temple in northwest Austin, said his congregation had not held an in-person service or rally since March.

“As a congregation and community, we have done our best to follow the science and make sure everyone is safe,” he said. “It’s been an interesting time for everyone, and I think right now we’re saying it’s about breaking the tradition this time around so that we can still have many more years together to celebrate.”

This has meant virtual celebrations for Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as virtual gatherings for milestone events, such as bar and bat mitzvahs, funerals and burials.

“Because of our families’ continued desire to mark these occasions as sacred, they remain sacred, and even though we come together on virtual media, there is nothing virtual about them,” Freedman said. “They are very real and very holy, and we do our best to maintain that. ”

But many other places of worship have felt comfortable enough to return to limited in-person gatherings and have strict social distancing guidelines.

Mount Zion Baptist Church in East Austin has returned to in-person worship, allowing approximately 45 people, including those who lead and serve the worship, inside the shrine under new security protocols. The services are also distributed online.

Rev. Daryl Horton, youth minister and pastor’s assistant at Mount Zion, said religious leaders will encourage the congregation to worship and participate virtually during the holidays, but will continue to allow in-person worship.

“We will continue to adhere to current CDC guidelines and limit in-person contact while encouraging and equipping all members to wear their masks, stay socially aloof and ensure their health is a priority,” Horton said. . “Although we miss the time before the pandemic, we cherish every opportunity we have to pray together, even when it’s virtual.”

The Catholic Diocese of Austin will also continue to allow in-person gatherings during Holiday Mass and will continue to follow safety protocols, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and recommendations from health experts during the pandemic.

According to a spokesperson for the diocese, these protocols encourage all the faithful to wear masks, to respect safe distances between households, to wash or disinfect their hands when entering the church and to receive Holy Communion. by the hand. In addition, parishes disinfect pews and other touched surfaces between Masses.

“We maintain our belief in the sanctity of human life, which calls on us to remain vigilant in our care for one another through these proven protocols,” a statement from the diocese said. “We are grateful to our civilian and health leaders who have accompanied us through this difficult time and continue to advise us on how to keep everyone safe. The church will diligently follow these protocols for the good of all of God’s people and the common good of our community.

Brown, the county judge, said the reception from religious leaders has been positive and many are finding ways to adapt and help.

“We understand that for some congregations it may be more difficult than others to go fully online as it can present financial and digital challenges, but anything we can do to slow the spread of this virus is important,” did he declare.


Perry A. Thomasson