Districts share updated COVID-19 guidance with churches

At least three districts in the Church of the Brethren have this week shared updated COVID-19 guidance with their congregations, including Southern Ohio and Kentucky District, Middle Pennsylvania District, and Virlina District.

From Southern Ohio and Kentucky District executive minister David Shetler and board chair Todd Reish:

We are eight months into the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 is an increasing–not a decreasing–threat. In recent weeks we have seen a drastic increase in positive COVID-19 test results, hospital admissions, and deaths. While we are experiencing fatigue in keeping safety protocols, we need to continue wearing masks, staying six feet apart, washing our hands, and obeying health recommendation of the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.

Meeting “online” for worship and church meetings continues to be the best practice for caring for each other’s health. There are gaps in our knowledge of COVID-19, such as the longterm effects the virus has on physical and cognitive health, how much co-infection with influenza might increase the death rate, and the air circulation filtration systems needed to limit the spread of the virus in the confined spaces of our buildings. We know that being indoors substantially elevates the risk of transmission.

We will not celebrate Christmas as we usually do. This Advent and Christmas will help us understand Mary and Joseph’s experience of Jesus’ birth away from family and friends and away from the comforts of routines and traditions. We can ponder the season without the distractions of a hectic holiday season.

As your congregation plans for winter, please remember the faces of the members of your congregation, including newcomers you’ve connected with virtually. We have the ability and responsibility to prevent needless deaths on the road toward normality. If the Ohio Department of Health rates your county at Level Three or Four, the District Board urges you not to hold or to discontinue in-person worship or other activities.

Decide about reopening in the light of scriptures we’ve been highlighting: “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4, NASB). “Love is patient…. It does not insist on its own way…. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 4-7, NRSV).

We encourage you to consult statements made by the Church of the Brethren, National Council of Churches, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Ohio Department of Health. The District Board strongly urges each congregation to have a plan in place for what you will do if someone intentionally or unintentionally fails to follow “the rules.”

We offer this recommendation through the Advent and Christmas seasons and will update it in January 2021, or as changing circumstances or new information calls for.

Unto God’s gracious mercy and protection, we commit you; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, be upon you, and remain with you always. Amen.

(We express our thanks to Mid-Atlantic District for their letter, on which we have relied and to Kathryn Jacobsen, PhD, MPH, a member of the Oakton congregation and professor of Epidemiology and Global Health at George Mason University, for generously sharing her expertise and suggestions on which we have also relied.)

From Middle Pennsylvania District executive minister David F. Banaszak:

In the last two weeks, the number of reported positive COVID cases in our state has skyrocketed to over 4,000 per day. (5,488 reported today: 11-12-20). Along with those reports, locally in our district we have had several churches report a number of positive COVID cases that have forced those congregations to postpone meeting in person and return to virtual online worship. Pastors and congregational members alike within our district have tested positive and become ill.

Infectious disease experts are attributing this burgeoning number of cases to what they call “community spread,” meaning that individuals have become infected with the virus but are uncertain how or where they contracted the virus. When that is the case, isolation and contact tracing become all but impossible and the virus is given free rein in a community because it is uncertain who carries the virus and who does not. It is a recipe for widespread illness within an individual congregation when precautions are not followed.

To that end, this advisory is being communicated to all pastors and church leadership to renew, recommit, and refocus on all of the mitigation efforts which were recommended when the pandemic started months ago. These include taping off pews for social distancing, mask wearing, elimination of multiple touching in the offering, elimination of unnecessary social events, and rigorous sanitation efforts (both hand washing and the church facility).

The reality is that for some who become ill with COVID, the effects and symptoms are relatively mild. However for others, contracting COVID becomes life threatening and deadly. There is no way to accurately predict how an individual will respond to a COVID infection. Therefore short of suspending in-person meeting, implementing the mitigation efforts described above is the best response for our churches.

In the event that persons within a congregation who have been in contact with others at worship test positive, it is advised that in-person worship be temporarily suspended for the recommended two-week quarantine period. Subsequent steps for that congregation would then be determined based on their particular situation.

As I have stated from the onset of this pandemic, our primary concern at this time as followers of Christ and as leaders of the church is the protection and safety of our members. No other agenda can take precedence. It is your responsibility as a leader of the church to protect your members. Aside from returning to virtual worship, I cannot underscore enough the importance of renewing, recommitting, and refocusing on all of the mitigation efforts recommended and implemented when the pandemic started months ago. The life of someone who calls your church home may depend on it.

From Virlina District executive minister David K. Shumate:

The following COVID-19 restrictions in Virginia were announced this afternoon by Governor Northam. The announcement stated that they were effective at midnight on Sunday. It was not clear if this was Saturday/Sunday or Sunday/Monday. If your congregation has fewer than 25 inside, we believe that the reduction in public gatherings would not apply. We do not believe they would apply to parking lot services with transmitters nor to other techno methods of outreach.

— Reduction in public and private gatherings: All public and private in-person gatherings must be limited to 25 individuals, down from the current cap of 250 people. This includes outdoor and indoor settings.

— Expansion of mask mandate: All Virginians aged five and over are required to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces. This expands the current mask mandate, which has been in place in Virginia since May 29 and requires all individuals aged 10 and over to wear face coverings in indoor public settings.

Churches are not subject to the restrictions except as follows:

Individuals may attend religious services of more than 25 people subject to the following requirements:

a. Individuals attending religious services must be at least six feet apart when seated and must practice proper physical distancing at all times. Family members, as defined below, may be seated together.

b. Mark seating and common areas where attendees may congregate in six-foot increments to maintain physical distancing between persons who are not family members.

c. Any items used to distribute food or beverages must be disposable, used only once, and discarded.

d. Practice routine cleaning and disinfection of frequently contacted surfaces must be conducted prior to and following any religious service.

e. Post signage at the entrance that states that no one with a fever or symptoms of COVID-19 is permitted to participate in the religious service.

f. Post signage to provide public health reminders regarding physical distancing, gatherings, options for high-risk individuals, and staying home if sick.

g. Individuals attending religious services must wear cloth face coverings in accordance with Amended Executive Order 63, Order of Public Health Emergency Five.

h. If religious services cannot be conducted in compliance with the above requirements, they must not be held in-person.

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