In a bid to keep their sacred temples open amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have asked all visitors and workers to wear masks "at all times" while inside as a temporary safety measure.
"We are grateful that in recent months, some level of ordinance work has resumed in every temple. Our desire is to keep temples open. As cases of COVID-19 increase in many areas, we want to do everything possible to allow temples to remain open," the denomination's president, Russell M. Nelson, and his two top counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring, wrote in a letter to the church Wednesday.
"Therefore, effective immediately, all temple patrons and workers are asked to wear face masks at all times while in the temple. These safety protocols are temporary, based on COVID-19 conditions, and will be rescinded as soon as circumstances permit."
This summer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance on the need for urgently increasing COVID-19 vaccinations. The CDC recommended that everyone wear a mask in public indoor places, even if they are fully vaccinated, in areas of substantial or high transmission.
The CDC said this guidance was due to a "rapid and alarming rise in the COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates around the country." New data also showed that the delta variant was more infectious and led to increased transmissibility compared with other variants, even in some vaccinated individuals.
In addition to regular Sunday worship in some 18,000 chapels, members of the denomination worship in temples they consider to be "the world's most sacred spaces, places where heaven and earth meet." The church lists 252 temples worldwide, but only 161 of them were reportedly operating last month.
Carole M. Stephens of the church's general Relief Society Presidency said the spiritual strength members receive from worshipping in a temple increases their "faith and determination to face the trials" of life.
The LDS Church also performs temple ceremonies on behalf of those who have died, a practice they argue comes from 1 Corinthians 15:29.
"This practice enables Latter-day Saints to form eternal connections between family members in heaven and on earth," the church says.
While anyone can visit a temple during an open house, access is generally restricted to members who have a current "temple recommend" card. The card verifies members believe in the Latter-day Saints doctrines and obey certain rules like tithing and abstaining from alcohol, The New York Times reports.
In urging visitors to their sacred temples to mask up during visits, Latter-day Saint leaders explained that they have previously taken similar protective steps to prevent the spread of disease.
"Our urging Church members to be vaccinated and to protect themselves and others from the spread of disease has precedent," they noted. "Prior First Presidencies shared similar messages in 1900 about smallpox and in 1957 regarding polio. Please do all you can to protect yourself and others so the work of the Lord on both sides of the veil can move forward."