The Reopening: Churches across the nation begin holding in-person services as some states ease pandemic restrictions
The inability to attend church each week has been one of the most affecting consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to social distancing guidelines, it’s been nearly impossible for congregations around the country to gather in ways they were accustomed to prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
As states begin to reopen, however, so are religious activities. Kevin Seager, the senior pastor for the Norwalk Alliance Church in Norwalk, Ohio, said earlier this week that his church began a particular reopening of in-person services in early June. Yet even with that in mind, he acknowledged how hard it’s been to get things up and running again as Ohio transitions into its latest reopening phase.
“This phase is actually the trickiest because we knew how to handle (being) completely shut down,” he said, “but this is kind of at the in-between, where you can hear a different thing every week. Eventually, this will go by, and we can get back to doing things as we’ve done it, but for the moment, out of love for our neighbor, we’re going to forego some of the things that have been one of the best ways that we like to do church — for example, singing a whole bunch of songs.
“We’re having to do things differently,” added, “and that’s a challenge.”
Our reporters spoke with churches in 11 different states to see where they are with their re-opening plans and what comes next as they hope to begin the process of regularly gathering to worship together.
The Rev. John Heille is one of the pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Fairmont, Minnesota.
Right now, they are doing drive-in worship at the Fairmont Junior/Senior High School parking lot.
He said that beginning July 12, they will be doing one service in their church building and another drive-in service each Sunday. They started drive-in services in June, which feature the service broadcast over the radio so people can listen from inside their vehicles.
“We had to get a transmitter,” Heille said. “And once we figured that out, it was pretty straightforward. We just had to find a big enough parking lot.”
He said 59 cars showed up to the June 28 service, which amounted to about 130 to 140 people, which he considered good attendance — even though it is still lower than usual summer attendance at the church.
“In the summertime, we’re usually at 250 to 300 people,” he said.
He explained that the church parking lot is currently under construction, so the school district was generous enough to allow them to use their lot during the summer.
“That’s honestly one of the biggest parking lots in town,” Heille said, adding that the pastors and leaders conduct the service from a small hill so everyone can see them. “We ask people to bring their own elements for communion.”
He added that everyone is adjusting to their new roles in a pandemic world.
“Our ushers have all of a sudden turned into car parkers,” he said with a laugh. “Which is really awesome.”
He said they use cones to direct people where to park. He also said it seemed like people enjoyed getting back together.
“It was just beautiful,” he said. “Most of it was just visiting through their windows.”
Heille added that for the older members of the congregation, the drive-in services still give them a chance to connect with others.
“We had two people I know to be well into their 90s join us for worship,” he said. “I would feel much better to know that our older folks know that they have an option that’s going to hopefully reduce risk for them. This is our goal — to say church is still with us, God is still with us in this moment, but it’s not going to go away for a while.”
When they do resume indoor services, it will be by reservation and they will only be using every third pew, Heille said, to maintain social distancing between parties.
At St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Lawrence, Kansas, the communion sacrament has been adjusted in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In many Catholic churches, the blessed wine — believed to be the blood of Christ — is shared and consumed by many congregants from the same cup.
Currently, however, wine is no longer being offered at St. John’s, said the Rev. John Cousins, OFM Cap., a priest at the church. Instead, only the blessed bread is available. Additionally, instead of having numerous parishioners help give out communion during the service, the priest is the only person to hand it out.
Cousins said other adjustments to church services include that they are limited to just 60 people.
St. John’s offers six services a weekend, Cousins said, meaning there are a total of 360 seats available. Only about 77 percent, or 277 people came last weekend, however. Cousins said there are congregants who would like to come to mass but are still fearful.
In Kansas, churches were allowed to reopen in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan, which began on May 4. St. John’s began hosting masses again on May 16.
At St. John’s, congregants wear masks during the service, Cousins said. People sanitize their hands before mass begins and singing is limited to one person: the cantor.
Cousins said parishioners that have returned are happy to be back.
“I had one comment that I think is probably indicative of others,” Cousins said — it being that the parishioner said church was one of the safest places they’ve felt while visiting in recent months.
In Marshalltown, Iowa, Center Street Baptist Church just reopened for its first service on Sunday.
“People were just chomping at the bit to get back,” said the church’s administrative assistant, Linda Bailey.
Despite other churches in town opening before them, Bailey said they waited to reopen in order to get their procedures in place so that they could take “as many precautions as possible.”
Bailey said the church, which is medium-sized and typically would gather about 100 people per service, has many elderly congregants.
“We need to make the whole population feel as comfortable as possible,” Bailey said. “It’s hard to explain to some people that we have to think of everybody.”
Among the precautions Center Street Baptist Church offered were propped open doors before services, a designated entrance and exit door, bathroom monitors who cleaned stalls after use and the suggestion that people mail in offerings instead of passing around an offering plate.
Churches in Iowa were allowed to reopen for services on May 3.
In Provo and Ogden, Utah, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “strictly following the guidance of governments to prevent the spread of the pandemic,” according to media relations manager Irene Caso.
Currently, both the Ogden Utah Temple and the Provo Utah Temple are only opened under Phase 1 limited operations, meaning the temples are only open for living sealings.
“At this time, only husband-and-wife living sealings are being performed for members who have already received their endowment,” the respective websites state. “Sealings will be performed by appointment only and limited to couples residing in a designated geographic area.”
Worship services do not occur in the temples but rather in meetinghouses.
According to a May 19 article from the church’s newsroom, there is a two-phased approach to reopening church meetings and activities. Phase 1 will include worship services limited to 99 people and shortened meetings and activities at the meetinghouse, with the possibility of some meetings needing to occur virtually. Phase 2 will include services allowing more than 100 individuals and meetings and activities at the meetinghouse.
The status of the phased reopening of individual meetinghouses differs by ward at the local level.
Some parts of Pennsylvania have gone back to places of worship, while others have not. In Altoona, the Agudath Achim Congregation has not yet returned to the synagogue, but are meeting via Zoom.
“All services are being handled at my dining room table,” said Cantor Benjamin Matis, the spiritual leader of the congregation, which has about 100 families.
Matis said they haven’t reopened yet, as they’re being “extremely careful” when it comes to being cautious during the pandemic. He said there are those among his congregation who would love to get back into the building, and those that don’t feel it’s safe to do that just yet.
The leadership within the congregation are discussing when to open, he said, especially with “major Jewish holidays” approaching in the fall.
“Everything’s still very up in the air,” Matis said. “Yes, we’d love to reopen the synagogue – it’s a pain in the neck using Zoom. If we’re going to do anything, we’re going to do it as safely as possible.”
Matis referenced a Jewish law called “Pikuach nefesh,” which means that “the preservation of life and health takes precedence over all other legal concerns,” he said.
In Canonsburg, Pa., the congregation of the All Saints Greek Orthodox Church was very happy to get back to in-person services at 50 percent capacity.
“People even had tears and were crying coming back to church,” said the assistant priest Father George Athanasiou. “It’s a family. It’s a second home for some people.”
They are part of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh, which includes congregations in Ohio and West Virginia, and have been following guidelines from the metropolis. They had been doing virtual services with only a few church leaders in the building, according to Athanasiou.
“We’re not used to that TV or broadcast-based service,” he said. “We all became televangelists overnight.”
Like everywhere else, they’ve had to incorporate sanitizing stations, six feet of social distancing and face masks during services. They recently had a service with 80 people there, and they were wearing masks, Athanasiou said.
“It’s not just our own safety, but for the safety of others,” he said. “You want to be safe, especially for our older parishioners. We want people to feel comfortable coming back to church.”
After initial COVID-19-related shutdowns across the state, many churches closed their doors to the public. Since June, some churches have returned to hosting services with restrictions while others are waiting to welcome back members.
The Rev. Eric L. Bodenstab, the pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sandusky, said the church previously hosted a Saturday evening service and two Sunday services before the pandemic. Now, they’re not worshipping at all in the building.
In the 1970s, the church started broadcasting services over a local radio station, something they have continued to do for church members without Internet access. Services are also pre-recorded, edited and posted to the church’s YouTube channel.
For the missing Saturday service, Bobdenstab has been making reflection videos that are posted to YouTube at the same time the in-person service would have been.
“It’s like 10 to 15 minutes at most, but it’s just a little reflection to stay in connection with folks who might have liked that service to give them something to see and do at that time,” he said. “Our faith formation folks got together and they’ve taken on doing something for children – a Sunday school time after the service.”
He said the church also has its own app which has helped the church stay in contact with members. Sermons are also posted as a podcast. For church members without internet access, the church has been mailing out bulletins, announcements and devotionals.
“We have just in this past week opened up the building for appointment visits because we have what we need to do the cleaning inside the office,” Bobdenstab said. “But we don’t have what we need yet to do the cleaning inside the building, so we are not yet meeting in the worship space, because we don’t have the hand sanitizer dispensers. They’re on order, but we’re waiting for them.”
Bobdenstab said the council, representatives elected by the congregation, is still planning how they will conduct in-person worship services but have maintained contact with their members.
“Our council has taken it upon themselves with some other members to call the members of our congregation every week and we have about 490 households,” he said. “They don’t always get to everybody, but they give it a shot, just to stay in contact with everybody, every week.”
A few weeks ago, Bobdenstab’s church began providing a drive-thru communion service.
“We take those elements and distribute them to folks as they drive underneath our covered entryway,” he said. “The first and third Sundays, we’re going to be doing that and I think that’s going to be our plan for the foreseeable future.”
The Rev. Monte J. Hoyles, pastor of the Catholic parishes of Sandusky, said between March and the end of May, there were no public masses.
“Beginning on May 25, we started to offer our regularly scheduled masses,” Hoyles said. “The faithful were asked to reserve a pew online or to call the parish office to reserve a pew. Beginning June 27, we began to use every other pew, which is what most parishes in our area have been doing.”
The Sign of Peace and distribution of communion has been suspended and hymnals have been temporarily removed from pews.
“We have live-streamed Mass once each week, and originally added a number of online daily devotions,” Hoyles said. “One of our parish priests and several of our deacons have been telephoning our homebound parishioners to see how they are doing.
“We have also offered a number of online evening chats where people can comment, ask questions and feel like they are part of the event,” Hoyles added. “One of these was a Facebook cooking show with the priests of the parish.”
The Norwalk Alliance Church has also started welcoming back church members after becoming an online church since March.
Kevin Seager, senior pastor, said that during the first Sunday of June, they started a partial reopening of in-person services while continuing to live-stream the sermon.
“The in-person had a lot of restrictions,” he said. “We greatly reduced our seating capacity so that all chairs would be a minimum of six feet apart in groups of five or six years so families could sit together. We actually shorten the duration of our service from about an hour and 15 minutes to about 45 minutes just to reduce overall exposure.”
Seager said the church has made the difficult decision to suspend congregationally singing because doing so is “a prime way to be breathing hard over everybody around you.”
He said while following guidelines set by the state for COVID-19, they are also following another guideline: love for your neighbor.
“More than thinking about what your personal freedoms are, think about what’s good, not only for the people who want to come to church but even our greater community,” Seager said. “We don’t want to be creating more danger.”
Many worship centers in Northeast Michigan have resumed services in some capacity. Some are offering outdoor and drive-in services, while some smaller congregations are meeting indoors, with social distancing precautions in place.
Living Hope Church in Alpena, Michigan, started offering outdoor services on June 7, with the option to bring your own chair and sit outside, or stay in your car and listen to the service via radio.
Communion is still being served, but is offered in sealed packages of a wafer and juice that each parishioner opens themselves. Hugging and handshaking is discouraged, but some have been comfortable enough to reach out and touch each other.
Masks, meanwhile, are not required because it is an outdoor service. The church has always offered a Facebook Live service, which people can view from home if they do not feel comfortable gathering together yet.
At Temple Beth-El in Alpena, indoor services have resumed with social distancing and masks required. The synagogue has a smaller congregation, so the issue of a large crowd is not a big concern there, said Ken Diamond, president of the congregation of Temple Beth-El. The synagogue normally features visiting rabbis, but that is not possible due to the pandemic.
“We are a very small congregation, and don’t have enough members to have a full-time rabbi here with us,” Diamond explained. “So we had to cancel several of those, probably for the rest of the year, based on their travel.”
He added that they have conducted services with rabbis via Zoom during the shutdown.
They started conducting in-person services a few weeks ago and tuning into sermons broadcast by other synagogues in Northern Michigan, such as Petoskey.
“We have hand sanitizer available, the congregants are all wearing masks, and we are doing social distancing,” Diamond said. “We will continue to do that as conditions abate and we are able to move back towards a more normal schedule, hopefully.”
He said the congregation consists of about 20 families.
“Several members expressed concern,” he noted of the threat of COVID-19 exposure. “We’re all concerned about meeting indoors, of course. But hopefully in taking the proper precautions, we won’t have any events at all.”
Some worship centers in Maui have resumed indoor services, including King’s Cathedral Maui, a Christian Pentacostal Church in Kahului. Assistant Pastor Ron Moody said services are offered indoors and drive-in style in the parking lot.
For the indoor services, which resumed in June, face masks are requested for adults and children ages 6 and older, and social distancing is encouraged by leaving the pew or chairs next to your group vacant. Hand sanitizer is available at all entrances and throughout the building.
“We are enforcing social distancing, and all pews are spaced six feet apart,” Moody said. “We’re the largest church building in the state, so that lets us space things out.”
He said all service people in the church are required to wear masks and gloves.
“There’s also streaming services online for those who don’t feel comfortable coming out yet,” Moody said.
After two months of offering services completely online, Fredericktowne Baptist Church in Walkersville welcomed parishioners back on June 7. A week earlier, they went through a “dry run … where we had only ministry workers come in, just to get used to the new protocols,” Senior The Rev. Tim Allen said.
Those steps included registering attendees, making sure they were wearing masks and guiding them to their seats. The auditorium’s removable seats were rearranged into socially distant blocks where families coul sit together while maintaining at least six feet between themselves and other groups. The church building is large enough that they have plenty of room for those attending, even with an occupancy limit of 50 percent of capacity, Allen said.
Allen said worshipping together is important, encouraged in the Book of Hebrews. But Allen also acknowledged Christians can be connected spiritually if they worship through electronic means because they are at greater risk of contracting the virus or don’t yet feel comfortable venturing out.
“We want to love our neighbors, we don’t want to put our neighbors at risk,” Allen said.
Even when they could not worship in the same building, members were checking on one another. More recently, they met in small groups in outdoor spaces like parks, Allen said.
The Frederick area is home to about 1,500 Muslims, said Dr. Syed Haque, chairman of the outreach committee for the Islamic Society of Frederick. Many of them gather for Friday prayers, comparable to a Sunday service at a Christian church, and a variety of other activities at the ISF Masjid in Frederick.
But those gatherings were put on hold from March 23 to the first weekend in June, Haque said. Eid Day, the May 24 gathering to mark the end of Ramadan that usually draws 3,000 people, was not held because of the pandemic, he said.
“For eight Fridays, we could not go,” he said.
Being able to return “was such a pleasure, such a release.”
Under the leadership of ISF Board of Directors President Khalil Elshazly, the masjid is following state guidelines, including requiring masks and social distancing, Haque said. People age 65 and older, those with underlying health conditions, individuals with symptoms and those who are simply uncomfortable going out were encouraged to stay home, he said.
Throughout the closure, the American Muslim institutions has said it is all right to pray at home instead of engaging in some traditional activities, Haque said.
“Your intentions are seen by God,” he said.
By the time Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in early June that houses of worship could resume in-person services, Tupper Lake Christian Center Church had already welcomed some members back into the sanctuary.
Pastor David Boyea said the decision was based on the low amount of COVID-19 cases in the area, as well as President Donald Trump saying in May that churches are essential and should be allowed to reopen.
“At the time we opened, we had zero known cases,” Boyea said. “We’re a town of probably a little under 4,000.”
Tupper Lake is in Franklin County, which registered 31 positive cases through June 30. Boyea said a very small number of those were in Tupper Lake.
The state allowed religious facilities to have up to 25 percent occupancy in Phase 2 of the New York Forward Reopening plan, and that was set to rise to 33 percent in Phase 4. However, a lawsuit over the original cap on indoor religious gatherings when other activities are allowed 50 percent occupancy led a federal judge issuing an injunction on the limit last week.
Boyea said he recommends that people attending services wear masks, but some “just can’t tolerate wearing a mask; they just can’t breathe.”
Those individuals were invited to sit in the front row, although some have started to occupy the third and fourth rows as well. Boyea said he won’t “police” masks.
“If it was different in Tupper Lake, I would,” he said.
Maintaining six feet of social distance during a service is “quite impossible,” Boyea said, but people are avoiding standing face to face, using fist bumps instead of hand shakes and utilizing hand sanitizer and other precautions.
“If something were to change in Tupper Lake, we would change things,” he said.
About 20 miles away, in Saranac Lake, St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church resumed in-person masses two weeks ago, with social distancing and masks required.
“I haven’t heard any complaints about the rules we had to put in place,” said the Rev. Martin Cline, pastor at St. Bernard’s. “After every Mass, all the pews, anything the public would have touched – like handrails, light switches, door handles – is sanitized.”
Cline noted the requirement to attend Mass in person has been waived during the pandemic and he understands some people may not feel safe returning to church right now.
If he was a parishioner instead of a priest, “I would be a little uncertain myself,” he said.
But the online services the church has offered over the last couple months just aren’t the same as worshipping in person together, Cline said.
“When you’re saying Mass and you’re looking up and you’re seeing cameras instead of faces, there is definitely something missing,” he said.
The Rev. Eric Olsen pastors both First United Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity in Saranac Lake. They did not resume services in-person services until Sunday.
“We wanted that extra time just to see how things were going and follow the trends,” Olsen said.
For July and August, they decided to conduct worship outdoors. One of the requirements for staying inside is that there be no singing. But outside, Olsen said, they can increase their social distance space to 12 feet and continue to lift their voices in praise.
Outbreaks at churches have contributed to rising COVID-19 numbers in West Virginia.
That hasn’t happened at the Ash Avenue Church of God in Moundsville, but they are prepared, Pastor C.J. Plogger said. If a member tests positive, people will be notified via automated phone call and online.
“We’ve said if we had three case,s we would go back to streaming online,” Plogger said.
In-person services halted the last two Sundays in March and resumed May 24. Every other row was sectioned off to promote social distancing, and gloves and masks are provided, Plogger said. Boxes have been set up to receive offerings so no ushers are passing collection plates, and communion is served using individually wrapped wafers and cups.
“We’ve not had any greeters yet because we don’t want multiple contacts,” Plogger said.
Plogger believes community is one of the most important aspects of the Christian faith.
“We all have challenges; we all have lessons to learn, so we can come together and lift each other up,” he said.
While worshipping online is not the same, Plogger said some people – including members of his family – have additional risk factors to consider that are still keeping them from in-person worship.
“We want to support them,” he said of people who cannot attend or don’t feel comfortable doing so. “I’m doing a lot of calls, but I have not done a lot of home visits.”