On Monday, the California Department of Health released new reopening guidelines for churches and other houses of worship in California.
Churches and other religious buildings must follow new guidelines
The new guidelines include temperature checks for all house of worship staff and congregants before entering as well as a strong recommendation for face masks during services. Services can also have no more than 100 people attend. Other preventive and social distance measures used in businesses against coronavirus spread such as keeping families and other congregants 6 feet away, using disinfectant and disposable seat covers, not allowing hugging or hand shaking, and letting in open air were also recommended.
Many house of worship specific guidelines were also given. Sharing items such as prayer books and prayer rugs are discouraged, with offering plates and baskets being passed around also not being recommended. Overall shorter services to limit the time people are in a single area and the continuation of remote services were also heavily suggested, as were the continuation of not hosting extra events that would bring in large groups of people such as concerts, weddings, and funerals.
Houses of worship, being private and non-profit, may also add more restrictions if they’d like, such as deciding if people refusing to wear masks can enter.
Counties would need to approve house of worship reopening with their own set of rules. State officials would then review county rules to make sure they meet state guidelines. While there is no set date for any county re-openings yet, the 21 day state review needed for each county points to mid-to-late June re-openings at the earliest. Many churches have already planned a June 14th reopening, such as the Catholic diocese of Orange County.
“A county does not need the state’s permission to allow the opening of a house of worship, but each facility must first meet the guidelines,” noted the Monday announcement.
Religions excited to have services again but also emphasize safety
Church and house of worship leaders met news on Monday with cautious optimism.
“It’s been two month since we have been open,” said Imam Nadeem Bashir of a Los Angeles County mosque. “As long as people are safe we are more than happy to reopen.”
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” stated Father Raul Soto, a Roman Catholic priest. “Remote services are just not the same, but through the guidance of God, the church, and Pope Francis, we’ve made it work so that our congregants don’t catch the coronavirus.”
“We’ll need some time on this, but we are eager to reopen as soon as it is safe to.”
“I insist that that’s the most important thing, that we protect one another,” added Orange County Bishop Kevin Vann in a statement, whose diocese is planning for a mid-June reopening. “We know that God is with us, but at the same time we have to be careful and make sure that we protect each other in this challenging time.”
The re-openings are part of Phase 3 of the overall California reopening plan. Phase 3, which also includes re-openings of hair salons, barbershops, and no attendance sporting events, was given a June reopening timeline earlier this month.
Some churches are planning an earlier reopening
Despite churches and other houses of worship reopening in the coming weeks, many are not waiting that long. Many have sent complaints into the state for weeks asking for a reopening. This has brought forth numerous lawsuits, but churches have largely been struck down due to the public safety concern. While some churches are continuing battles in court, including some Southern California churches trying to be heard in the U.S.Supreme Court, others have simply planned to reopen by the end of the month. A coalition of churches, emboldened by a federal warning over house of worship closures, plan to reopen on May 31st without county or state permission.
“This is our first amendment right.” said Pastor Deborah Richardson, who plans to open up her church on May 31st. “We’ll be reopening safely, and doing everything the state is saying to do now. But this is freedom of religion. This is important.
We understand about the coronavirus and physical health, but this is for the mental and spiritual health of people. Going to church shouldn’t have battle lines around it.”
State officials have maintained that in-person services, even under guidelines, will bring a large coronavirus transmission risk along with it. Outbreaks earlier this month in Butte County and Mendocino County were directly tied to in-person church services, and officials don’t want to see more outbreaks due to religious services.
“We can’t move too fast on this,” added Father Soto. “Remember, the church isn’t a building, it’s the people. And the people are far more important than a building.”