Not so Fast, COVID Says to Churches Trying to Reopen

Pastors, elders and the leadership team at Valleydale Church in north Shelby County closed the church to in-person worship in March because of the coronavirus but reopened June 7.

A plan was developed at that time for returning to campus in stages as the pandemic abated, and the church started its return to normal with limited services and limited seating on June 7, according to communications director Johanna Horstmann.

Then COVID-19 surged again in Alabama, surpassing by far the number of infections the state had seen earlier in the year, and the church had to close again a few weeks later.

Valleydale will be offering the online services it instituted early in the pandemic through the end of July, at least, according to a notice on its website.

It is just one of the churches across the state that had begun to reopen, only to close again because of rising threats from the virus.

Pastors, rabbis and other religious leaders across the state are watching data from the Alabama Department of Public Health, the CDC and other sources as they consider when it’s safe to reopen for their congregations. While the health department has not issued mandates on churches, it has issued guidelines to help religious leaders make those decisions.

“Our congregation is older, so we’ve watched the number of infections and deaths in our county very closely,” said Joe Scrivner, pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, which has been and remains closed.

“We’ve also watched comparable churches in size, and we’ve erred on the side of caution,” Scrivner said.

The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. offers guidance to its member churches rather than orders, allowing decisions to be based on local situations, according to Scrivner.

The Church of the Highlands, Alabama’s largest church, also resumed services June 21 but chose to backtrack two weeks later after monitoring the rise of COVID-19 in the community. Leaders said in a post on the church’s website that the church would not hold in-person services for several weeks.

Jewish Dilemma

Rabbi Stephen Slater had hoped to bring his congregation at Temple Beth-El back together last month even if it was outside. But then he watched as COVID-19 cases started creeping, then leaping back up.

He had to make the hard decision to call off the service and resume the livestreamed services the temple began offering in March.

“We need to see numbers going down for two consecutive weeks before we even consider opening the building again,” he said in a letter to the congregation posted on the Temple Beth-El website.

But that’s a hard decision in the Jewish faith, Slater said. He said Judaism is filled with “mitzvahs,” sacred acts that must be done in person.

“Presence is everything for us, so even video is a stretch,” he added. “In Judaism, it isn’t the thought that counts. It’s the action.”

The saying of Kaddish, prayers honoring the dead, requires the presence of 10 people. Some synagogues have chosen to accept the use of video as meeting that minimum presence, but Temple Beth-El has not. The saying of Kaddish is only one of the many practices on hold during the pandemic.

The largest gatherings of the year, the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, begin in September.

Synagogue leadership is considering whether to offer services through video, outdoors or inside the synagogue with masks, social distancing and reduced occupancy. But all three of those scenarios have drawbacks, Slater said.

Catholic Concerns

Birmingham Catholic Bishop Steven J. Raica and his predecessor, Bishop Robert J. Baker, issued decrees relieving local Catholics of the obligation to attend Mass due to concerns about COVID-19. Raica recently extended the original decree to Sept. 6.

“The focus for us is the safety of our people,” said the Rev. Douglas M. Vu, director of media relations for the Diocese of Birmingham, which has 105,000 members. “We want to be able to attend Sunday Mass, but we want people to be safe. We don’t want them to feel obligated to attend and to expose themselves to potential risk of the coronavirus.”

The bishop encouraged Catholics to take Holy Communion, which is required at least once annually, “as soon as it is reasonably possible.”

Vu has offered the sacrament of Confession, which must be made in person, on a “drive-up” basis from his car on Saturday mornings since March 17. Good Morning America showed a short video on its Facebook page of Vu offering this car-to-car, socially distanced service.

Too Close for Comfort

Some churches that had reopened have had to close again because of firsthand brushes with the coronavirus.

Covenant United Methodist Church in Dothan began offering in-person services May 24, only to be closed again. First the preschool and child care were closed June 28, after an infant tested positive for COVID-19. Teachers who had been in contact with the child were tested, and one of the tests came back positive.

Plans were to disinfect the areas and reopen, but the Rev. Hays McKay, Covenant senior pastor later announced on Facebook, “We will not gather in our buildings for worship services in July.” The online services still are being offered, though.

Trussville First United Methodist also has had to close its doors because COVID-19 hit too close to home. The Rev. Stephen Strange posted on Facebook Wednesday that he, his wife and three other relatives had tested positive for the disease. The church and its day care facilities will be closed for two weeks, according to the post.

Hard Decisions

The Florence First United Methodist Church is continuing its online-only status for Sunday services. The Rev. Dale Cohen, senior pastor of the church, updated members in a June 26 email about plans for the weeks ahead.

“It’s hard to believe this Sunday will be 15 weeks since we’ve been able to gather together on site for worship,” Cohen wrote, adding that live-streamed services and various classes offered via Zoom will continue.

Cohen said church leaders reviewed data on the spread of viruses and met with a pulmonologist and critical care specialist. “After weighing the data, we determined it is still not in the best interest of our congregation to gather onsite at least until August, or until reproduction and transmission of the virus has subsided,” he said.

The bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church offered guidelines for churches when considering whether to reopen, but there’s no decree for them to remain closed.

Cohen added that the decision to delay reopening his church is about more than just data or guidelines.

“For me, one thing that keeps nagging at me, is that we’re still learning about this virus. We know it doesn’t fit any previous epidemic patterns. It’s unique and impacts people in so many different ways,” he said.

“I feel like we don’t know everything we need to know to make a decision to reopen. I am not afraid, but I think we need to respect what we don’t know yet.”

From Adversity, Innovation

The Rev. Andra D. Sparks, senior pastor at 45th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, said the coronavirus definitely put a dampener on activities at the church.

Although they had hoped to reopen in July, Sparks and church deacons decided to wait after reviewing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health department advisories and conducting their own research.

“We determined what we know about the virus has us in a space where we are not comfortable bringing people back,” he said.

But in that vacuum the coronavirus left, new ways to worship emerged.

“COVID-19 has helped and hindered us,” Sparks said.

The church now offers services on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Zoom.

“We’re basically putting out a show every week. It’s like Broadway, live TV – anything can happen,” Sparks said. When he invites guest speakers, he explains the challenge of maintaining momentum and energy in an empty sanctuary.

“Without an audience, there’s no feedback,” he said.