SALT LAKE CITY — Parking lots at Latter-day Saint churches could become temporary COVID-19 testing sites if necessary, but the meetinghouses probably won’t become overflow hospitals with beds and patients, according to the faith’s Utah Area president.
New details emerged about the vast swath of missionaries being withdrawn worldwide and millions of dollars in new humanitarian spending in Utah during an online video interview with Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We’ve already got approval to put outside testing stations in chapels throughout the state if we need to double or triple or quadruple the number of locations, remote locations, mobile testing, whatever is needed. That’s available,” he said during a Silicon Slopes town hall broadcast on Monday that included Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and others.
Utah will be administering and processing 3,000 tests per day by week’s end, Romney said, and is ramping up toward 10,000 tests a day. Already, five drive-thru testing sites are being set up by the University of Utah.
Utah has one of the lowest numbers of hospital beds per capita in the United States, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, but Elder Christensen said vacant hotels, for one, are a better option than using churches for overflow.
He noted that the challenges posed by moving tens of thousands of missionaries around the world in a matter of weeks because of the pandemic, calling it a bigger logistical challenge than other large Utah-based organizations are facing.
“We’re all working overtime,” he said.
Utah’s missionary force
The church is sending home all nonnative missionaries from approximately 350 of its 399 missions.
Nonnative missionaries will remain in 35 missions in the church’s Europe and Europe East areas and 10 missions in Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, according to a new post to its COVID-19 update page.
“We’re sending the Brazilians to Brazil, the Peruvians to Peru, unless they can’t get there,” Elder Christensen said. “There are borders that are closed. Peru is not letting anybody in or out. Columbia (on Monday) closed down. So if we can’t logistically do it, they stay in the country they’re serving, but we’re trying to move them back to their home countries.”
He said 19,800 Americans are serving overseas and are returning home to the United States. The process will take two or three more weeks, Elder Christensen said.
Utah’s missionary force will swell in size.
“Utah has about 12,000 of those missionaries,” Elder Christensen said.
Those that return will self-quarantine. Elders with fewer than six months of service remaining will be released, as will sisters with fewer than three months left. Others will be reassigned and put to work helping as volunteers.
“I think we could respond to anything that this group would want to engage missionaries doing, including helping in the health care field taking temperatures, whatever is needed,” Elder Christensen said.
Salt Lake City International Airport will see an average of 300-350 missionaries return each day. Salt Lake police will now join additional airport officials and personnel from the church’s missionary department to ensure social distancing protocols are maintained.
The church also is sending home virtually all senior missionary couples. Only those considered essential, a decision to be made by mission and area presidents, will remain in the field.
Some 450 senior couples are now at home in Utah.
“They’ve not been released,” Elder Christensen said. “They’ve just been sent home to self-isolate until this passes, but we’re going to need them when we gear back up again.”
The church is distributing 10 trucks of food in Utah per day to help with needs during the pandemic.
“From a humanitarian standpoint, we’re processing in Utah alone since it started a $30 million ask,” he said. The church is helping and working with partners like the Salvation Army, the Utah Food Bank and hospitals.
“We’re moving that pretty quickly,” he added. “You’re seeing what we do best as a church, and that is welfare and humanitarian service. Those things are going and we’ll just continue to do that.”
It’s also possible that church buildings could be used as sites for child care for health care workers, if the child care is provided by volunteers, Elder Christensen noted. Tax laws prohibit commercial child care in church buildings.
Latter-day Saint Charities is ramping up food production to help the needy as job losses rise and providing funding and supplies to help fight the pandemic in 16 countries, officials told the Deseret News last week.
He mentioned the church had closed 88 temples, but that number has grown. Now 112 of the church’s 168 temples have closed.
Elder Christensen also discussed the impromptu mass gathering of several thousand people at the airport on Sunday, when 900-1,000 missionaries returned to Utah from the Philippines. Another 600-700 landed but caught connecting flights to other states or Canada.
The missionaries arrived on five Delta Boeing 777 wide-body airliners chartered by the church, Elder Christensen said.
He said some of the families who greeted the missionaries did not follow church communications.
We had violations in other places, too,” he said.
Church leaders met Monday with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. Salt Lake police and additional airport and church personnel will monitor future arrivals to ensure vehicles that arrive to pick up missionaries have no more than two people inside and that those people remain in the vehicle. Airport and church personnel will bring an individual missionary to his or her waiting vehicle.
“These are the types of situations that can make things worse,” Utah state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said on the town hall broadcast, “but we don’t yet have evidence that this particular situation has led to more cases. These social distancing measures are going to be a way of life for the next several months, and we will need to find new ways to greet our loved ones.”
The Silicon Slopes town hall broadcast is available on YouTube.