The veracity and transmissibility of COVID-19 vary depending on several key factors including the environment, duration in the environment, number of people, and ability to safely distance. Most P.O.W. leaders are sort of loosely following the general guidance provided by government agencies but not understanding how the underlying data can shape the decisions that deal with reopening. While there are many things about the novel coronavirus that we do not know, that is no excuse to ignore or not seek to understand what we do know. Frankly, the stakes are too high not to press for every piece of available information to ensure all parishioners are as safe as possible.
In early March 2020, a church in rural Arkansas became the epicenter of a cluster outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus) which led to 35 people contracting the virus, of which three died. After an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it was discovered that two church attendees who were exhibiting mild symptoms had attended an event over three days. Within a few days, the pastor and his wife began to show symptoms which prompted the church to close and cancel all in-person operations. However, before experiencing symptoms, the pastor attended a Bible study which resulted in unwittingly exposing many others to the virus.
On May 22, 2020, during a news conference, President Trump urged churches to reopen and even threatened to override Governors if they did not lift the stay-at-home policies for churches. On the surface, this looks like a classic situation where an important public health issue becomes intertwined with partisan rhetoric. But when we go deeper into the issue, we find that many have lumped churches and other Place(s) of Worship (POW) into a group of businesses without considering the unique attributes that make them a higher risk environment.
As U.S. businesses reopen, the CDC has issued guidance for P.O.W. to be especially cautious about when and how to resume services. These new protocols come amid the discovery of more cases of in-person church services found to be linked to a series of COVID-19 "cluster" outbreaks across the United States. Through widespread media reporting, we know that nursing homes, meat plants, and restaurants are among the major battlegrounds in the fight against COVID-19. But churches, synagogues, mosques, Temples, are also especially vulnerable because of several inherent factors of which congregations gather coupled with the factual science on how the virus is spread.
Over the last five years, I have had the honor to work as a consultant to several pastors and their church staff where I focus on a variety of areas including marketing, operations, and fundraising. When the first stay-at-home orders were announced in March, P.O.W. around the country found themselves in a situation where they had to quickly suspend all in-person gatherings. As I observe and talk to these faith leaders, I am struck on the vast disparities in those who are well-informed and those who are not. The fact is, the more knowledge of the factual data available on this disease, the better informed the decisions will be around reopening. While there are many things about the novel coronavirus that we do not know, that is no excuse to ignore or not seek to understand what we do know.
Understanding How the Coronavirus Spreads
The starting point for preparing your parishioners to return to in-person services begins with understanding how the virus is transmitted communicably. Epidemiologists and other Public Health experts believe that the virus spreads via droplets, aerosolized transmissions, and surface transmissions. The transmission potency increases exponentially in indoor environments, especially where many people congregate for extended periods. The more people, the tighter the space, and the longer the time together—the higher the possibility of cluster infections. As we examine each of these forms of transmissions more closely, we find that many P.O.W. environments are comprised of several characteristics that create optimal conditions for the virus to spread communicably to clusters of people.
Most churches, synagogues, mosques, and Temples are indoors with little or no ventilation. We know that the coronavirus thrives in environments like these and when you add lots of people gathering for an hour or two in one space, the potential for cluster infections goes up significantly.
Droplets and Aerosolized Transmissions
While most scientists believe that coronavirus droplets are spread primarily through coughing or sneezing, some studies suggest that merely breathing and talking could release tiny particles that carry the virus that causes COVID-19. This basic concept is all about how far the virus can travel from one person to another and with what level of potency. Consider this thought experiment, how far would droplets travel by someone breathing, speaking, yelling or shouting, coughing, or sneezing. Studies have shown that these expiratory activities produce varying droplet amounts, sizes, and distances of travel based on the amount of force. In a nutshell, the data suggests that the more force behind the expelling of droplets, the larger they are, and further they will travel. Logically, the longer the duration that droplets are propelled into the air, the greater the opportunity for infections within that space. Moreover, while the research is still early, more and more scientists believe that airborne droplets could be a pathway for transmission and we know that the virus can linger in the air for several minutes. As a matter of public protection, the CDC and most state and local government agencies have provided guidance and in some cases, mandated, the wearing of masks as a way to mitigate droplets from traveling as far. Moreover, we have all become familiar with practicing social distancing which specifies to distance at least six feet from others when sharing the same space.
Social distancing and other types of safety precautions are very important and can help keep people safe. But for several reasons, they may not be enough in many P.O.W. environments. First, many church services and gatherings often occur in tight spaces where people mostly remain in the same spot for longer durations as compared to other places. The science informs us that the longer a person is exposed to droplets with the opportunity to come into contact with the virus, the higher the risk of infection. Secondly, many P.O.W. involve singing not only by choir members but parishioners as well, who often sing along in the audience. Singing is especially problematic because of the force involved with projecting droplets into the air. Because most songs can last two to five minutes in duration, droplets could travel longer distances and linger in the air for 8 minutes or longer. The sheer volume of airborne droplets and aerosols could quickly cover most rooms thereby exposing clusters of parishioners.
Until a vaccine is developed or at least proven treatment therapies become available, people including church attendees should avoid physically touching as much as possible. We know that in many churches, hugging and shaking hands is part of the culture. Will everyone adhere to these protocols? Probably not. For example, when one person reaches out to another to shake hands, it feels natural to instinctively reach back to shake hands in response. We are conditioned to these types of social interactions so navigating the “new normal” could be tricky.
Most P.O.W. have many shared surfaces including bathroom fixtures, doorknobs, collection plates, Communion trays, and so on. As in the case of the Arkansas church mentioned earlier, it only takes one or two persons who may be infected to set off an outbreak in a church, mosque, or synagogue. The COVID-19 virus can be especially contagious because it can be transmitted by an asymptomatic infected person.
These transmissibility concepts along with gathering types and spatial environments create favorable conditions for community spread in P.O.W environments. It is therefore wise to arm yourself with fact-based information to figure out when and how to safely reopen services. Once you and your team determine that reopening is possible, consider developing a set of detailed safety protocols that can help keep people safe.
Tips to Safely Reopen your Church, Synagogue, Mosque or Temple?
- First and foremost, do not reopen until local infection levels are sufficiently declining. The national guidance calls for a 14-day downward trend in cases and deaths. Many states and local agencies have adopted their own standards which theoretically should not be an easier threshold to meet than that set by the CDC, but unfortunately, some are. The wise thing to do is to follow the guidance from the CDC unless the state or local agency’s rules provide for stricter standards.
- Before you decide to reopen, form a planning team to thoroughly think through all of the elements you will need to safely reopen. This should include an exit plan in case of an unfortunate situation where an attendee tests positive for COVID-19. There should also be a process to handle cases in which someone comes into contact with someone known to be infected. The plan should be comprehensive and include a pre-registration process so every person who enters the facility can be accounted for and tracked in the event of an infection from a practitioner. Such a process can assist government workers who will begin the contact tracing steps necessary to identify others who may have been exposed.
- Work closely with your public health officials, church officials, and other P.O.W. that might be similar to your situation. Dealing with this virus is not something that any single person will have all the answers -- so make it a point to learn from many different resources as possible to ensure your members and guests are kept safe.
- Reduce the number of singers in choirs or singing groups to 2-4 max depending on whether there is sufficient room in your facility to distance at least six feet apart
- Use separate microphones or disinfect each one after a person speaks or sings into it
- Discourage congregational singing and require masks to be worn at all times while inside the facility (regardless of whether within six feet of another person)
- Deep cleaning with disinfectants. Before and after every service, make sure the entire facility is cleaned especially high use surfaces like doorknobs, restroom fixtures
- Discontinue handling collection plates and other items commonly touched by multiple parishioners
Reimagine P.O.W./Church Services to avoid creating a tinderbox for cluster infections
- Outside Church Services - If you have access to an outside location with ample space and favorable local ordinances, having services outdoors might make a lot of sense. We know that increasing distance, decreasing the duration of exposure, and open ventilation of the air around you can all lower the risk of infection. Having outdoor worship services generally helps you do all three. Social distancing at least six feet, wearing masks are still recommended. There is not enough evidence to say that the virus cannot spread outdoors, but based on everything that is known, outdoor services if done in conjunction with other safety precautions, presents a much lower risk than having services indoors.
- Add Plexiglass barriers to block droplets and aerosols produced by speakers and singers - Consider adding plexiglass barriers to common speaking areas including on stage which may include the pulpit or in front or around singers, prayer stations, etc.
- Reconfigure Sanctuary Seating - If you have individual chairs, this process is a bit easier. You may want to arrange cluster groups of chairs (pods) for each family and space them six feet apart. Many churches are considering a reservation system so in that case, you can number each of your chair pods similar to how a restaurant numbers tables. This way, attendees can be seated in an area that has enough chairs for their family group. Pew bench configurations can make it more challenging to reconfigure. For pews, you can use tape to section off the seating areas leaving a six-feet radius between seating groups.
- Utilize other rooms to allow for more distancing - If your facility has additional rooms such as classrooms, fellowship areas, etc., consider using these areas to accommodate attendees with more distancing. If you have the Audio-Visual capability, configure your video broadcast (Livestream) from the main sanctuary into these auxiliary areas.
- Temperature Checks - Given the fact that a fever is one of the key indicators that a person could be carrying the virus, checking every person's temperature before entering the facility can be very helpful in keeping the virus out. You can purchase a contacless thermometer for less than $100.00.