By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
When restaurants got the green light to resume in-person dining, many jumped at the opportunity to reopen their doors. When religious facilities got the go-ahead, many houses of worship were a little more hesitant.
Most places of worship in Alexandria stopped holding in-person services in mid-March, when cases of COVID-19 began to appear in the region. While religious organizations were technically allowed to continue holding in-person services with a maximum of 10 people, many elected to switch to virtual services and offer live streamed and pre-recorded videos for congregants.
In phase one of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) reopening plan, houses of worship are allowed to hold indoor services at 50 percent capacity. Those attending services must be seated at least 6 feet apart, with the exception of family members, and practice physical distancing at all times, according to Northam’s reopening guidelines.
Northern Virginia entered phase one of reopening on May 29. Despite the easing of restrictions, many religious organizations in Alexandria have chosen not to reopen immediately.
“Our timeframe for reopening is not necessarily tied to what the government allows and/or what commercial businesses are going to do or not do,” Adam Wallach, executive director of Beth El Hebrew Congregation, said. “For us, the health and safety of our congregants is the most important thing.”
Several places of worship, including Beth El, have established internal working groups that are researching and forming plans for when and how to reopen. In some cases, the decision is up to a board of directors. In other cases, a larger body sets guidelines for reopening.
For example, the Basilica of Saint Mary in Old Town reopened at the recommendation of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington as soon as the region entered phase one on May 29. The diocese offered guidance on reopening, but the decision was ultimately up to individual parishes, according to Alex Solsma, Saint Mary’s director of communications and evangelization.
“Catholics believe that the mass is the highest form of prayer and that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Catholic life,” Solsma said. “Once the governor and our local leaders permitted us to have public masses again, we enthusiastically wanted to offer that to our parishioners again.”
Since reopening, Saint Mary has been offering several masses per week, two per day Monday through Saturday and six on Sunday. Church leaders have blocked off every other pew to ensure distancing. Saint Mary has also continued offering virtual services for congregants who aren’t ready to attend in-person mass.
While few houses of worship have been as willing as Saint Mary to resume in-person services, some have come up with creative solutions.
Christ the King Anglican Church, a 300-member congregation that worships at Convergence Church at 1801 N. Quaker Lane, recently launched outdoor services.
“Frankly, we weren’t ready to [offer indoor services] for safety reasons and just concern for one another,” Judi Palafoutas, senior warden of the church, said. “But we looked at the front lawn and said, ‘We can put a lot more people here.’”
Christ the King held its first outdoor service with about 90 attendees last Sunday at 9 a.m. Congregants gathered on lawn chairs and picnic blankets and maintained physical distance between groups. The audio from the service was transmitted via FM radio so that at-risk congregants – and those still uncomfortable with gathering in-person – could listen from their homes. Some congregants listened and watched the service from their cars in the church parking lot.
“People have varying levels of comfort, and there’s no judgement one way or another,” the Rev. David Glade, rector of Christ the King, said. “If you’re comfortable in your home? Great. Car? Great. Lawn? Great. So we tried to keep it as openhanded as possible.”
As houses of worship navigate reopening, the contagiousness of the coronavirus has presented various challenges, especially when it comes to the ceremonies and rituals that take place during many religious services.
Many Christians consume bread and wine during services in a ceremony called Communion, Eucharist or The Lord’s Supper.
Saint Mary has resumed offering the Eucharist in a ceremony where parishioners receive a piece of bread in their hands or on their tongue. At Saint Mary, the person administering the Eucharist wears a mask, but no gloves, and is instructed to use hand sanitizer if they make contact with a parishioner’s hands or mouth.
At First Christian Church of Alexandria, which has not yet reopened, church leaders are considering changing the format of The Lord’s Supper and using self-contained cups, according to the Rev. Tim Bobbitt, the church’s pastor. The pre-packaged cups are about the size of a single-serve coffee creamer and contain a wafer and juice.
For some churches, including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Old Town, the risk of giving the Eucharist contributed to the decision not to reopen.
“Our primary focus of worship is a weekly Eucharist, so sharing bread and wine, so that’s very problematic,” the Rev. Oran Warder, rector of St. Paul’s, said. “Frankly we’re just not allowed to participate in that sacrament at this time, and that’s the bishop’s orders, not ours.”
St. Paul’s sent a letter to congregants stating the church will not reopen until after Labor Day. Other organizations have made similar calls, including First Baptist Church of Alexandria, which will stay remote until the region enters phase three.
Another challenge that many faith groups are facing is group prayer and song.
Northam’s guidelines for Virginia recommend that faith organizations suspend the choir as part of services. On May 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that faith organizations “consider suspending or at least decreasing use of a choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services …”
The recommendation suggested that singing may contribute to the transmission of COVID-19 through emission of aerosols, according to National Public Radio. The CDC removed the recommendation without explanation about a week later.
Still, many religious leaders are concerned that congregational singing could contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
“We ask what our worship would look like if it did not contain congregational singing,” Bobbitt said. “Our music director is pretty skilled in American sign language, and she said we might be able to use some of that. She would teach us some of that for our responses and maybe to participate without singing.”
Other faith communities, such as Christ the King, are taking additional precautions related to singing.
“For singing, we’ve required that our congregants wear face masks. We have song leaders that are given an abundance of space. The guidelines that we saw was 17 feet for singing,” Glade said.
As houses of worship that haven’t yet reopened consider their timeline, many are turning to their congregants for guidance.
“One of the important pieces of data that we are going to be collecting in the very short term is the attitudes and feelings of our congregants,” Wallach said. “We need to know where people’s comfort level is at this point with returning to our synagogue, so that’s something that we’re working to develop right now, a survey to go out to the congregation.”
An overarching theme among Alexandria’s religious organizations is caution.
“We really do see this, not as an onerous burden, but as part of our Christian duty to err on the side of love and to be cautious,” Warder said. “The last thing I would want is for a vulnerable person to come and be infected in the group.”
(Read more: Prayers during a pandemic)