Local Churches Get Guidance for Reopening Sanctuaries during the Coronavirus Era

The governor’s office on Tuesday shared new guidance on reopening one aspect of life in Oregon that wasn’t — technically — ordered closed in the first place: Local churches.

While schools, theaters, museums, arenas, restaurants and bars, barbershops and many other businesses were specifically called out in the governor’s executive orders, churches were not. Most closed anyway, out of concern for the health and safety of their congregants, as well as being unable to meet guidelines on large gatherings.

“Churches in Clackamas County haven’t technically been closed by the governor, in the way that other industries and sectors were,” says House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, from Canby. “But, for most churches, the question of social distancing and the guidance around hygiene has meant that they have, in fact, stopped doing in-person services.”

Rep. Drazan held a conference call Thursday that included a number of local pastors and faith leaders in her district, including several from Canby.

“What became clear is that folks worship differently, and they have different expectations about what reopening could look like for them,” she said. “Some churches, I think, will want to move to meeting in homes, some meeting in small groups in their churches if they can maintain those guidelines.”

One of the biggest frustrations, Drazan said, has been the lack of access to information. She said she has heard from many faith leaders that they would appreciate webinars or other guidelines from the Oregon Health Authority about how to conduct services safely when the time comes.

“That was really important to them,” she said. “They wanted to make sure that they are not doing anything that would risk their congregations and their community. But I think they do want to get back together. Like a lot of us, we’re all anxious to be able to worship together. That’s an important part of life for a lot of folks.”

Some of that guidance came Tuesday morning, in a webinar hosted by the governor’s office and other state officials and joined by more than 1,000 faith leaders across the state.

More specific guidance was expected Tuesday afternoon, but the general information was that churches in those counties approved to enter Phase 1 may begin a limited reopening starting on May 15, including gatherings of up to 25 people, as long as the six-foot physical distancing guidelines can be maintained.

Home gatherings of 25 or fewer would also be permitted, with the recommendation that the same groups meet each week rather than intermixing. Activities such as baptisms, coming of age ceremonies, weddings, funerals, conversion ceremonies and dedications would be allowed under the same size limits and guidelines.

Churches will also be advised to pay special attention to areas prone to crowding, such as lobbies and foyers, and limit access as needed.

“We know that the virus will be with us until immunity is reached, which is many months away,” said Jackie Yerby, the governor’s deputy health policy adviser. “The only tools we have that we know to be effective are physical distancing and hygiene.”

Music, a common aspect of most worship services, was a special concern.

“Singing in a choir has been associated with extensive spread of Covid-19, likely because vigorous singing is more likely to result in the expulsion of potentially infectious droplets from the throat,” Yerby said.

The use of face coverings during worship is recommended, but would likely not be required under the Phase 1 guidelines, officials said.

For communion, churches were advised not to use a common cup, but single-use, individual containers offered to congregants in a self-service manner.

Even with guidelines in place, and strict adherence to them, officials say they expect the number of infections to rise.

“Every restriction we lift increases transmission and will increase cases,” Yerby said. “As we reopen, as we return to gather, we will expect to see an increase in cases.”

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