Riverside County health officials said churches and houses of worship can reopen immediately in light of Gov. Gavin Newsom issuing statewide guidance Monday 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 each 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 and regularly evaluate workplaces for compliance.
“This is a significant step in the reopening process and we look forward to working with our places of worship with any assistance they need,” said Fourth District Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez. “A cornerstone of many religions is to take care of each other. Let’s continue to take care of each other by praying and observing 6 feet apart.”
Riverside County Second District Supervisor Karen Spiegel said people of all faiths have been looking forward to this day.
“An important part of getting through this together is keeping our faith strong. By taking these safety precautions, we can choose to practice our faith in person again and do so safely,” she said.
Other guidelines include:
— Shortening the length of services;
— Limiting visitation outside of scheduled services;
— Discontinuing large gatherings, such as concerts, large holiday and life event celebrations;
— Closing children’s play areas and discontinuing activities for children where physical distancing cannot be maintained;
— Propping or hold doors open during peak periods when congregants enter and exit;
— Restricting the use of common areas, such as break rooms;
— Reconfiguring podiums and speaker areas, office spaces, meeting rooms, conference rooms, etc., to allow for social distancing;
— Face coverings;
— Establishing directional passageways for foot traffic to help maintain physical distancing;
— Removing pamphlet displays and bookshelves;
— Limiting the number of people that use the restroom at one time;
— Discouraging handshakes, hugs and similar greetings;
— Reconfiguring parking lots to create more space between vehicles;
— Discontinuing potlucks or similar family-style eating and drinking events;
— Discontinuing singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets; and
— Modifying practices that are specific to particular faith traditions that might encourage the spread of COVID-19 (such as the kissing of ritual objects and use of a common cup).
The guidelines also recommend reduced visitor capacity and staggered visitation times at funerals, wakes, weddings, and other events, 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 guidelines state. “Further, it is strongly recommended that places of worship continue to facilitate remote services and other related activities for those who are vulnerable to COVID-19, 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 6 feet of physical distancing.”
The guidelines can be found at covid19.ca.gov/pdf/guidance-places-of-worship.pdf.
Attorney Robert Tyler, president of Advocates for Faith & Freedom and partner of the Murrieta-based nonprofit law firm Tyler & Bursch, LLP, said California’s new guidelines for worship remain too limiting.
“While we appreciate the efforts made to allow places of worship to resume services, the guidance limiting occupancy to 25% or 100 people, whichever is less, is not acceptable because it still discriminates against places of worship,” Tyler said. “… While many churches will have no problem complying with the 100-person limit, some of our clients have churches that seat 2,500 people and more. Limiting places of worship to 100 people is arbitrary, unreasonable and unconstitutional. Our clients will continue to make plans to hold services on May 31, 2020, and many will not limit themselves to 100 persons.”
He added: “We encourage the Governor to reconsider this unnecessarily low limitation on occupancy. Meanwhile, we will continue to pursue our legal claims in court in order to prevent future authorities from stripping First Amendment liberties from places of worship.”
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.
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.