Some churches and other houses of worship in Virginia are making plans to reopen as the state begins to lift “safer-at-home” restrictions for most areas on Friday.
In a five-page document, Gov. Ralph Northam's office told churches they will be allowed to resume services provided that they follow several mandatory guidelines during phase one of the state's reopening plan.
The document was provided as extra guidance for churches after Northam laid out his broad statewide reopening plan in an executive order signed last Saturday.
Houses of worship will be permitted to have services operating at 50% of the “lowest occupancy load on the certificate of occupancy of the room or facility in which the religious services are conducted.”
The state's guidelines require houses of worship to maintain social distancing practices.
Those in attendance must be seated 6 feet apart at all times. An exception is made so family members can be seated together along with individuals residing in the same household.
Seating at churches must also be marked in 6-foot increments. The state recommends that congregants wear masks that cover the nose and mouth at all times.
The guidelines forbid the passing of items to or between those in attendance who are not family members. The guidelines also require that churches do a thorough cleaning of frequently contacted surfaces before and after any service.
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"Signage posted at the building’s entrance that states that no one with a fever or symptoms of COVID-19, or known exposure to a COVID-19 case in the prior 14 days, is allowed to enter," the guidance explains.
The state also told churches to post public health reminders on social distancing and post options for high-risk individuals.
“If any place of worship cannot adhere to the above requirements, it must not conduct in-person services,” the state's guidance on religious services stresses.
The state will still limit all other non-religious gatherings to just 10 people while also allowing non-essential retail stores to reopen at 50% capacity.
On Tuesday, Northam issued another executive order. The new order allows specific localities in Northern Virginia to delay entering Phase One until May 28. The new order would allow Northern Virginia localities in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. more time to meet the health metrics laid out in Northam’s order from last Saturday.
“The Phase One policies are a floor, not a ceiling. While the data show Virginia as a whole is ready to slowly and deliberately ease some restrictions, it is too soon for Northern Virginia," Northam said in a statement. "I support the request from localities in this region to delay implementation of Phase One to protect public health.”
In other areas of the state, pastors and churches are trying to decide whether it's time for them to resume services.
Pastor Danny Dillon of Rock Church in the Hampton Roads area told 13NewsNow that his church is making plans to reopen at the end of the month.
“What we’ll do each and every Sunday when people come, we’re going to have our seats 6 feet apart," Dillon explained. “They’re encouraging us not to give out any programs or hand out anything, so as they come in, we’ll do everything digitally.”
Dillon added that the church will have to stop passing out donation trays and leaflets for the foreseeable future.
Some church leaders are hesitant to reopen services even though they will be allowed to do so.
Rev. Barry Absher of City on a Hill in Tazewell told The Washington Post that he is worried about trying to keep his congregants 6 feet apart since they like to move around before and after services. Absher said he will keep his church closed for now.
“It would feel like an episode of ‘The Walking Dead,’” Absher was quoted as saying. “People would want to hug you, then you feel like a jerk for not hugging them back."
The allowance for churches to operate appears to have been a concession of sorts after the Trump administration put its support behind a Virginia congregation that sued the governor.
Lighthouse Fellowship of Chincoteague took legal action against Northam last month after Pastor Kevin Wilson received a criminal summons for allowing 16 people to worship at a Palm Sunday service held in the church’s sanctuary. The sanctuary is capable of holding over 200 people.
The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case, asserting that religious institutions ought to receive leeway since "there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights."
Vice President Mike Pence also weighed in on the situation, commenting on a Fox News radio interview that the "very idea that the Commonwealth of Virginia would sanction a church for having 16 people come to a Palm Sunday service … was just beyond the pale.”
Similar scenarios have taken place around the country as tensions have emerged over the government's legitimate duties to safeguard public health while maintaining rights that are established in the Constitution and those protected under the First Amendment.