Governor green lights churches, but some say they’re sticking to virtual services for now

Gov. Northam’s guidelines for businesses also apply to churches

ROANOKE, Va. – Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said churches can re-open as part of phase one of his plan to bring the state back from the COVID-19 shutdown — but some churches in southwest Virginia are saying thanks, but no thanks.

After weeks of being locked out, the plan allows churches to re-open as early as this weekend. They’ll be required to follow the same guidelines for businesses, like half capacity and six-foot separation, but Bishop Mark Bourlakas of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia has concerns.

“We have parishes that could probably seat five or six hundred people, so if fifty percent of that or even a little less, is that a good number? Should we start up with several hundred people, I don’t think so," Bourlakas said.

His parishes have offered their services online only, opting against drive-in services. And despite the go-ahead, they’re not bringing people back into the building until at least June.

George Anderson is the senior minister at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke. They too have been online only and will stay closed.

“To be honest it was a surprise that we could start as early as next week at fifty percent capacity because we had been planning according to his original timeline," Anderson said.

Anderson said they are looking at the original June re-open date, and will stick with that to help work out the details for what church will look like when people do come back. He also feels the church should stay closed while schools and businesses remain closed too.

“So it just makes sense that we wait until other assemblies are larger as well because I don’t think the virus knows whether it’s in a church, in a business or in a household, it just spreads as it will," Anderson said.

Roanoke’s First Baptist Church, however, will offer an in-person service this weekend, in addition to what’s become their weekly drive-in service. Both services will follow the Governor’s guidelines, which include additional recommendations to churches that stretch from cutting services short to reduce people’s need to go to the bathroom, to encouraging those younger and older to stay home.

But Bourlakas says his guidance to keep churches closed is simple. Many in the congregation are older and likely at-risk, and unlike businesses, they don’t need to rush to open to make money. It’s a simple decision in his eyes to keep people safe.

“My freedom ends where yours begins and I think that’s lost on some people. They want what they want without thinking about their neighbors and the good of all," Bourlakas said.

Church leaders also said that when things do get back to normal, other considerations need to be made. Communion remains a possible transmission risk as does singing in chorus groups.

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