This article is part of Reopenings, a series about how businesses and other institutions are operating during the pandemic.
Pastor Nathan Rose describes Liberty Baptist Church as a “normal church,” by which he means it’s a medium-size Southern Baptist congregation, about 50 years old, located in a medium-size suburb of Kansas City. Like many congregations across the country, Liberty Baptist is in the process of figuring how to reopen its doors after months of cobbling together virtual meetings.
Liberty Baptist will open its doors on May 31 for the first time since March. But services will look far from “normal” when it reopens. Masks will be required, and child-care is canceled indefinitely. In the wood-beamed sanctuary, fabric-covered chairs have been swapped out for hard plastic seats that are easier to disinfect. Each row of chairs will be spaced six feet apart, with buffer seats blocked off between household units in the rows. Attendees will have to register in advance to attend, a newly widespread practice that is a significant adjustment in a faith tradition that emphasizes welcoming the stranger. With space limited, members at Liberty Baptist will only be able to attend services every other week. To accommodate drop-in visitors, Rose will ask several families to volunteer to leave at a moment’s notice if necessary. “Trying to maximize the space is a Rubik’s cube nightmare,” Rose said. “For now, we’re just seeing what it’s going to look like.”
Until recently, houses of worship like Liberty Baptist had been relying on a patchwork of denominational input, independent research, expert resources, and local guidelines in navigating these dilemmas. Concrete federal direction was harder to come by until Friday, when the CDC finally issued guidance on reopening for houses of worship. Meanwhile, in an afternoon press conference at the White House, President Trump threatened to “override” governors who have not yet allowed houses of worship to reopen their doors. “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend,” the president said. Even before Trump’s announcement, pastors in several states had declared their intention to reopen May 31, the celebration of Pentecost on the Christian calendar.
For pastors and other church leaders, reopening is not just a political gesture, but a high-stakes decisions in which their parishioners’ lives are on the line. Not even all of Trump’s pastor supporters are on board with his breezy suggestion to open up this weekend; pastors Robert Jeffress and Paula White-Cain both told the AP that they will not be offering in-person services before June. “It’s increasingly clear that this reopening will be more complex than the closing,” said Kent Annan, who coauthored a detailed guide to reopening for churches published by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. “Offering, communion, singing, passing the peace: Each one of them has to be thought through.”
Some churches and denominations have decided reopening is too risky to even consider in the near future. The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Susan Frederick-Gray, recommended recently that congregations plan to continue meeting virtually through May 2021. But other congregations have already started to meet again, or are actively making plans to do so. The multi-site megachurch Life.Church has reopened locations in Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, after converting services into a completely “touchless experience.” (Other locations, including those in Florida, Missouri, and New York, remain closed.)
In Clio, Michigan, pastor Rhyan Glezman reopened the doors to the Community Church of God on May 10, a few days after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer exempted houses of worship from being penalized for violating the state ban on gatherings over 50 people. He spaced out the chairs in the sanctuary, canceled coffee hour and childcare, and now serves communion as pre-packaged individual servings of juice and crackers. He also set up a “parking lot praise section” outside where people who didn’t want to come inside could tune into services on their phones or radios. “If people can go to liquor stores and lumberyards safely, then absolutely we’re able to open our building,” Glezman said,” he said. “The Bible says ‘Do not neglect to meet with one another,’ so we’re going to do that as safely as possible.”
For most churches, seating and space issues are the most pressing concern. In Elk Grove, California, Laguna Chinese Baptist Church is planning to group chairs in the sanctuary into pods, with households seated together and separated from other households by at least eight feet. “The family that shelters together, worships together,” pastor Jonathan Szeto said. Before the pandemic, the church held services in English and Mandarin simultaneously in different parts of the building, with a Cantonese service a few hours later. Now, Szeto is figuring out a schedule that would allow the three services to take place consecutively, with time for a complete cleaning in between each one. He’s also working to develop livestream capabilities—as opposed to posting a delayed recording—to make sure no one who wants to stay home feels they are missing out on experiencing the service. “We have a long road back,” he said. He is tentatively aiming to reopen the building in July.
Singing is another major worry. Congregational singing, whether of historic hymns or contemporary worship music, is a core element of almost every church service around the world. But the act of singing also expels breath with significantly more force than normal speech, according to public health experts. Many churches are still grappling with whether to give it up entirely, or find some way to modify the beloved practice. The Archdiocese of Baltimore, for example, is suspending congregational singing until further notice, citing guidance from groups including the American Choral Directors Association and the Performing Arts Medical Association. The Humanitarian Disaster Institute’s guide classifies singing as “high risk,” and recommends against choir singing in particular indefinitely. Instead, the report suggests, music could be performed by a soloist who adheres to physical distancing guidelines.
In Fort Worth, Texas, First United Methodist Church co-pastor Lance Marshall and his staff are thinking about cordoning off seating in the front rows of the balcony when the church reopens, unsure whether respiration would fall to the congregation below. Marshall is also working to make pew seating safer, given that long benches can’t be rearranged as easily as chairs. He has already removed porous materials including cushions and hymnals, and plans to stagger seating between services, designing one row for one service, then closing it off for the next one.
In normal times, up to 1,500 people attended services at the historic downtown Gothic Revival building each weekend. (The church broke ground on October 29, 1929, the day the stock market crashed.) The church has not announced a reopening date yet, although other churches in Texas—particularly rurally—have started to meet again. “Some safe gatherings may be possible for other churches before it’s possible for us,” Marshall said. “That’s going to be hard, and I want to prepare people emotionally for that.”
The risks of reopening too soon have already been proven. The CDC issued a report last week on how a pastor and his wife in rural Arkansas spread the illness through their church in early March; of 92 people who attended events at the church, at least 35 acquired Covid-19 and three died. In Ringgold, Georgia, a church that reopened after the state’s stay-at-home order expired in late April closed again recently after members of several families who attended services were diagnosed. Leaders of Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle said the church had been following social-distancing guidelines, keeping family units six feet apart and taking other measures to prevent contamination. After two weeks of meeting in person, the church is returning to livestreaming its services for the indefinite future.
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