Gov. Gavin Newsom issued guidance Monday to churches and other houses of worship in California on how they can safely reopen amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the guidelines, places of worship must limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or 100 attendees, whichever is lower. This limitation will be in effect for the first 21 days of a county public health department’s approval of religious services within their jurisdictions, after which the California Department of Public Health will review the limits.
They must also arrange for social distancing of at least 6 feet between people, establish and implement a COVID-19 prevention plan for every location, train staff on the plan, and regularly evaluate workplaces for compliance.
Among the other guidelines:
— Shorten services to limit the length of time congregants/visitors spend at facilities whenever possible. This could include limiting speeches, asking congregants/visitors to put on garments at home before arrival, etc.
— Close places of worship for visitation outside of scheduled services, meetings, etc., whenever possible.
— Discontinue large gatherings that encourage congregants/visitors to travel and break physical distances during activities, such as concerts, large holiday and life event celebrations and remembrances.
— Close children’s play areas and discontinue activities and services for children where physical distancing of at least 6 feet cannot be maintained.
— Prop or hold doors open during peak periods when congregants/visitors are entering and exiting facilities, if possible and in accordance with security and safety protocols.
— Close or restrict common areas, such as break rooms, kitchenettes, foyers, etc. where people are likely to congregate and interact.
— Reconfigure podiums and speaker areas, office spaces, meeting rooms, conference rooms, etc., to allow for at least 6 feet between people.
— Face coverings are strongly recommended at all times for congregants/visitors and staff.
— Establish directional hallways and passageways for foot traffic, if possible, and designate separate routes for entry and exit into meeting rooms, offices, etc., to help maintain physical distancing and lessen the instances of people closely passing each other.
— Close self-service item selection such as pamphlet displays and bookshelves and provide these items to congregants/visitors individually as necessary.
— Consider limiting the number of people that use the restroom at one time to allow for physical distancing.
— Discourage staff, congregants, visitors, etc., from engaging in handshakes, hugs, and similar greetings that break physical distance.
— Reconfigure parking lots to limit congregation points and ensure proper separation (e.g., closing every other space).
— Discontinue offering self-service food and beverages. Do not hold potlucks or similar family-style eating and drinking events that increase the risk of cross contamination.
— Strongly consider discontinuing singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets.
— Consider modifying practices that are specific to particular faith traditions that might encourage the spread of COVID-19. Examples are discontinuing kissing of ritual objects, allowing rites to be performed by fewer people, avoiding the use of a common cup, offering communion in the hand instead of on the tongue, providing pre-packed communion items on chairs prior to service, etc.
The guidelines also recommend reduced visitor capacity and staggered visitation times at funerals, wakes, etc., if possible, and modifying religious or cultural practices when washing or shrouding bodies of those who have died from COVID-19, in accordance with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
“This guidance does not obligate places of worship to resume in-person activity,” the statement said. “Further, it is strongly recommended that places of worship continue to facilitate remote services and other related activities for those who are vulnerable to COVID19 including older adults and those with co-morbidities. Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations. In particular, activities such as singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.”
The entire statement can be found at covid19.ca.gov/pdf/guidance-places-of-worship.pdf.
Churches and other houses of worship were ordered closed to the public on March 19. Since then many have adjusted by holding virtual services, while a few have recently resumed in-person services in violation of the order.
In Riverside County, a Murrieta church held in-person worship services attended by hundreds of people on Sunday in defiance of the state’s coronavirus shutdown order.
Pastor Tim Thompson of 412 Church Murrieta told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that the church has held such gatherings since May 3. According to Thompson, congregants were being allowed to maintain social distance and wear face coverings, though it was not a requirement.
Its sister congregation in San Jacinto has also been holding in-person gatherings since May 10.
The state allows houses of worship to hold drive-up services in parking lots but indoor gatherings such as the ones held by the Murrieta and San Jacinto churches are currently banned.
More than 1,200 pastors and clergy from across California, including Thompson, signed a letter to the governor last week saying they plan to resume in-person services May 31, regardless of state restrictions.
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