The Story: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has compiled new “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith” that outlines precautions churches may need to take when states lift their coronavirus restrictions.
The Background: The CDC’s document—which is not legally binding and has not been officially released yet—notes that the “guidance is not intended to infringe on First Amendment rights as provided in the US Constitution.” Neither the CDC nor any other federal government agency can prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities that are “more stringent than the mitigation strategies asked of similarly situated entities or activities in accordance with the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA).”
The CDC offers the following suggestions for consideration “to the extent consistent with each community’s faith tradition”:
Hygienic and cleaning practices
- Encourage use of flexible or virtual options whenever possible for all non-worship activities (e.g., counseling, volunteer meetings).
- Follow specific CDC guidance for childcare or educational programming for children and youth.
- Encourage use of a cloth face covering at all gatherings and when in the building by everyone except children aged less than 2 years old. (Not using a cloth face covering may also be appropriate at times for some individuals who have trouble breathing or need assistance to remove their mask.)
- Have adequate hygiene supplies, such as soap, tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand sanitizer (with at least 60 percent alcohol).
- Consider posting signs on how to stop the spread of COVID-19 and promote everyday protective measures.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at least daily and shared objects between use. Avoid use of items that are not easily cleaned, sanitized, or disinfected. Ensure safe and correct application of disinfectants and keep them away from children.
- Ensure that ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible by opening windows and doors, using fans, and so on. Do not open windows and doors if they pose a safety risk to children using the facility.
- Take steps to ensure that all water systems and features (for example, drinking fountains, decorative fountains) are safe to use after a prolonged facility shutdown to minimize the risk of Legionnaires’ disease and other diseases associated with water.
Promoting social distancing
- Limit the size of gatherings in accordance with the guidance and directives of state and local authorities and in accordance with RFRA.
- Consider video streaming or drive-in options for services.
- If appropriate and possible, add additional services to weekly schedules to maintain social distancing at each service, ensuring that clergy, staff, and volunteers at the services ensure social distancing to lessen their risk.
- Consider holding services and gatherings in a large, well-ventilated area or outdoors, as circumstances and faith traditions allow.
- Space out seating for attendees who do not live in the same household to at least six feet apart when possible; consider limiting seating to alternate rows.
- Consider whether other gatherings may need to have attendance limited or be held virtually if social distancing is difficult, such as funerals, weddings, religious education classes, youth events, support groups, and any other programming.
- Avoid or consider suspending use of a choir or musical ensemble during religious services or other programming, if appropriate within the faith tradition. Consider having a soloist or strictly limiting the number of choir members and keep at least six feet between individuals.
- Consider having clergy hold virtual visits (by phone or online) instead of in homes or at the hospital except for certain compassionate care situations, such as end of life.
- Consider temporarily limiting the sharing of frequently touched objects, such as worship aids, prayer books, hymnals, religious texts and other bulletins, books or other items passed or shared among congregants, and encourage congregants to bring their own, if possible, photocopying, or projecting prayers, songs, and texts using electronic means.
- Modify the methods used to receive financial contributions. Consider a stationary collection box, the mail, or electronic methods of collecting regular financial contributions instead of shared collection trays or baskets.
- Consider mitigating the risk of transmitting COVID-19 posed by close physical contact among members of the faith community during religious rituals as well as mediated contact through frequently touched objects, consistent with the community’s faith traditions and in consultation with local health officials as needed.
- If food is offered at any event, have pre-packaged boxes or bags for each attendee whenever possible, instead of a buffet or family-style meal.
- Avoid food offerings when it is being shared from common dishes.
- Train all clergy and staff in the above safety actions. Consider conducting the training virtually, or, if in-person, ensure that social distancing is maintained.
Monitoring and preparing
- Encourage staff or congregants who are sick to stay at home. Plan for when a staff member or congregant becomes sick.
- Identify an area to separate anyone who exhibits COVID-like symptoms during hours of operation and ensure that children are not left without adult supervision.
- Establish procedures for safely transporting anyone who becomes sick at the facility to their home or a health-care facility.
- Notify local health officials if a person diagnosed with COVID-19 has been in the facility and communicate with staff and congregants about potential exposure while maintaining confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or other applicable laws an in accordance with religious practices.
- Inform those with exposure to a person diagnosed with COVID-19 to stay home and self-monitor for symptoms, and follow CDC guidance if symptoms develop.
- Close off areas used by the sick person and do not use the area until it after cleaning and disinfection; wait 24 hours to clean and disinfect to reduce risk to individuals cleaning. If it is not possible to wait 24 hours, wait as long as possible before cleaning and disinfecting. Ensure safe and correct application of disinfectants and keep disinfectant products away from children.
- Advise sick staff and congregants not to return to the facility until they have met CDC’s criteria to discontinue home isolation.
Maintain healthy operations
- Implement flexible sick leave and related flexible policies and practices for staff (e.g., allow work from home, if feasible).
- Monitor absenteeism and create a roster of trained back-up staff. Designate a staff person to be responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns. Employees should know who this person is and how to contact them.
- In the event a person diagnosed with COVID-19 is determined to have been in the building and poses a risk to the community, it is strongly suggested to close, then properly clean and disinfect the area and the building where the individual was present.
- Communicate clearly with staff and congregants about actions being taken to protect their health.
What It Means: Your reaction to this guidance will depend on what you were expecting from the federal government. Some pastors and elders may have thought the lifting of restrictions would mean a return to normal procedures and practices. If so, the CDC’s vision of sermons being delivered to half-empty pews full of people wearing face masks may come as a shock.
But most church leaders are likely expecting that the “new normal” will be look strange. For those planners, this latest guidance by the CDC (which mostly restates commonsensical coronavirus practices) may seem underwhelming. What the guidance underscores it that the civil authorities will not be handing down a plan that can be easily adopted and implemented by our churches.
Instead, we must rely on our people—both those in our congregation and also members of the larger body of Christ—to plan for how to protect our churches. Fortunately, we are up to the task. As Paul says in Ephesians, when Jesus ascended on high, he “gave gifts to his people” (4:8). We can trust that the Lord has gifted his people with the wisdom and skills necessary to prepare for what comes next.
Doing so, however, may require that we set aside our need to maintain control and our aversion to input from outsiders. We may need to make policy decision based on the wisdom of fellow believers who we may disagree with on substantive matters, such as baptism or ecclesiology. Can we come together for the good of God’s people? If we can, we may find that church in the time of COVID-19 may be a time of both social distancing and also gospel-centered unity.