ROANOKE, Va. – When Phase One begins in Virginia on Friday, many in-person religious services will be happening this weekend.
Last week, when Gov. Ralph Northam announced more details about Phase One, he mentioned that places of worship will be able to have services with a 50% indoor capacity.
The governor’s office has released a 5-page document, providing guidelines for how religious services can be conducted during Phase One.
In it are nine mandatory requirements for how in-person services must operate while Virginia remains in Phase One:
- Occupancy is limited to no more than 50% of the lowest occupancy load on the certificate of occupancy of the room or facility where the service is happening
- Those attending services must be seated at least 6 feet apart at all times, excluding family members, who may be seated together. Virginia defines family members including blood relations, adopted, step, and foster relations, as well as all individuals residing in the same household.
- Seating must be marked in 6-foot increments.
- It’s recommended that those at services be encouraged to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth at all times
- No items may be passed to or between attendees who are not family members
- Any items used to distribute food or beverages must be disposable and used only once and discarded
- A thorough cleaning and disinfection of frequently contacted surfaces must be conducted before and after any service
- Signage posted at the building’s entrance that states that no one with a fever or symptoms of COVID-19, or known exposure to a COVID-19 case in the prior 14 days, is allowed to enter.
- Signage posted to provide public health reminders regarding social distancing, gatherings, options for high-risk individuals and staying home if sick. Click here for a CDC printable flyer.
Houses of worship are told that if they cannot adhere to these requirements, in-person services are not allowed.
Beyond those mandates, the governor’s office released a variety of best practices for those who are able to hold in-person services.
- Designate a health coordinator and/or form a health equity team that will be responsible for coronavirus planning and preparation
- For the building itself:
- Conduct thorough cleaning before and between services
- Use separate doors to enter and exit the establishment, when possible
- Allow interior doors to remain open, as to limit the touching of door handles
- Provide sanitizing stations throughout the building, particularly at the entrance and exit
- Consider installing touchless door entry systems or providing single-use barriers (i.e., paper towels) for use in touching door and sink handles in bathrooms
- Use messaging boards or digital messaging and social media for announcements, eliminating the need of bulletins and handouts
- During weekly religious services:
- Churches and other religious services are continued to provide and encourage the use of online streaming as members are safer at home
- No place of worship should feel obligated to return to in-person worship before they are ready to do so
- Consider holding multiple services with time for thorough cleaning in between each service, to allow for greater distancing during services.
- Suspend the choir as part of services
- Consider shorter services to avoid the need for people to use the bathroom
- Consider limiting or suspending youth services until a safer time
- Consider holding small group or separate services for senior citizens and other high-risk populations.
- If taking this route:
- Consider making this the first service of the week, after thorough cleaning and disinfection of facilities have been performed.
- Ensure the use of face coverings and physical distancing is maintained between individuals at this service
- Ensure social distancing in parking lots or common areas
- Consider discontinuing use of common items (e.g., microphones, books, hymnals, scriptural texts) that may be shared between people and are difficult to clean.
- Consider assigning religious books to a family or individual that they can bring to each service, or use a projector for the display of sacred texts, scriptures, and songs.
- When oils, water, ashes, or other materials are applied to a person’s forehead, self-application should be used, to the extent possible.
- Discontinue shared meals and other activities where people may gather in groups (e.g., limit or suspend coffee stations, shared food, meet and greet time before and after services etc.), with the exception of essential food services for low-income residents
The guidelines distributed by the state also outline six different possible methods for religious services:
Drive-in/parking lot church
The guidelines describe this as a safer model of religious service where social distancing may be maintained.
Sign-up worship services
Ask members, visitors, or guests to sign up for one live service per month, or every other week (in Phase 1). If needed, members can take turns between online and in-person worship services during this interim time. Allow space for impromptu visitors by registering fewer people (for each worship or religious service) than the maximum allowed per the occupancy restrictions.
Multiple gatherings during the week
A place of worship may divide the number of congregants by the maximum occupancy level and offer worship services at that level. Consider adding online services, multiple services on one day, or alternative services during the week and/or on Saturdays and Sundays.
Utilizes multiple methods
As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, most places of worship lost the ability to gather in-person, but many gained a stronger online presence. Consider nurturing both aspects for at-risk individuals, as well as for the increased capacity to reach and serve those outside of the walls of the faith organization.
This method asks parents of young children to alternate worship attendance (naturally reducing attendance, as one parent stays home with children).
Take this approach if you are in a high-risk area, your place of worship is not yet prepared with the conditions outlined in the state guidelines for opening, you or a member of your family has COVID-19 symptoms, or the governing authorities have requested additional measures in the interest of public health.
For those seeking more information, members and leaders of the diverse faith communities and funeral homes across Virginia can receive a signage tool-kit and register to receive updated information from the Governor’s Office of Diversity and Partners in Prayer and Prevention from the Virginia Department of Health by contacting DEIDirector@governor.virginia.gov or OHE@vdh.virginia.gov.