Churches nationwide make plans for soft reopening with fewer attendees, sanitation stations

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After holding online-only services for weeks due to mandatory social distancing rules, many churches around the nation are planning to reopen while taking all precautions needed to check the spread of the coronavirus, according to reports.

In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson on Friday announced his plan to reopen the state from the coronavirus shutdown which would include guidance for attending church services, according to KCTV5.

Businesses and other organizations will be allowed to reopen beginning May 4 while an emergency declaration will be extended through June 15, Parson said at a news conference. “Some communities will be able to open at a faster rate than others,” he added.

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In Fishers, Indiana, a local pastor announced that the church building will reopen for services this weekend, and called the governor’s stay-at-home order an attack on religious freedom, according to WTHR.

“We are officially in a situation where your religious freedoms have been removed in the interest of public health,” pastor Dave Sumrall of I-Town Church was quoted as saying in a message posted on the church’s Instagram page. “So on one hand, the church has been deemed essential. But on the other, we’re not allowed to gather. I personally believe this is an attack on what the definition of a church is.”

The church said it will only allow 10 people at a time for Sunday worship, and will start a new service every hour.

In New York, the Syracuse Diocese is also planning to reopen in a safe and effective manner, WKTV reported.

Bishop Douglas Lucia sent out a letter notifying local churches about the plan.

“I feel we must err on the side of caution in order to eradicate this deadly virus from our communities and will continue to follow the directives of local authorities,” he wrote. “I am looking to see if an outdoor mass with participants staying in their cars is feasible as an interim measure if not permitted to gather in our church buildings.”

“Each week I’m trying to do my best via YouTube and our parish Facebook page to send a message of encouragement and hope, and to celebrate Sunday liturgy so that we can at least feel connected to one another,” Father Joseph Salerno at Our Lady of Loudes Church in South Utica was quoted as saying.

“One of the thoughts that has come forward is to possibly having a mass specifically designated for those who are most vulnerable. That may be people 65 years and older, those who are most vulnerable, and at this point in my life I am among them. We could keep them as safe as possible.”

In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock has announced phase one of reopening that includes churches.

Summit Church’s Lead Pastor Lance Steeves says his congregation will cooperate. “Setting chairs up at 6 feet apart where people have that safety in distance, sanitization to have hand sanitizer available. Stations set up where people are constantly cleaning. Shortening services, where it helps people to alleviate things like the restroom. We talked about perhaps closing down areas like the meeting places like around the coffee bar,” he said, according to 7KBZK.

“I think the number one, for the soft launch, is to allow people to know that we’re still going to be online and especially people who are elderly, people who have low immune systems, to recommend that they stay home until we get the all clear,” he added.

However, in Oklahoma, despite Gov. Kevin Stitt’s willingness to allow churches to reopen, some congregations say they are not ready.

“We all want to preach and I get that but we also want to protect people too,” pastor Keith Wiginton of Claremore First Baptist told KTUL. “There are people that are like, 'I’m coming back right now,' and then there are some that are like, 'I’m not coming back for six months.'”

Nearly half of pastors across the country hope to be back in their buildings with their congregations by May. However, a recent weekly national pastor panel survey for April 7-13 conducted by Barna measuring their well-being, attendance and giving suggested that most pastors expect their return might take longer.

Asked when they thought they’d be able to host church services in their usual location or building, 47 percent of pastors predicted this will happen in May. This group of pastors eyeing a May deadline, however, showed a 10 percent drop over the previous week when 57 percent of pastors in the survey picked it as their reopening month.

Some 50 percent of pastors in the survey also felt they won’t be able to return to their church buildings until June or later. Of this group, 35 percent chose June, 14 percent picked July or August while 1 percent imagine their return will be later.

Last week, President Trump unveiled guidelines for Opening Up America Again, after weeks of a nearly nationwide lockdown.

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