SALT LAKE CITY — More than two months after the coronavirus pandemic prompted the closure of their meetinghouses worldwide, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are getting ready to go back to church.

They will return in two phases based on local government guidelines, according to the church’s First Presidency.

The church will take abundant precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially surrounding the preparation and passing of the sacrament. Those precautions may include priesthood holders wearing masks, socially distanced seating, the temporary suspension of choirs and sanitizing buildings after use by each congregation.

Based on local situations, some congregations may be able to resume church meetings this weekend while others will not.

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“We now authorize some meetings and activities to be resumed on a limited basis using a careful, phased approach,” the First Presidency wrote in a letter issued Tuesday to general and local church leaders worldwide.

Phase 1 consists of shortened Sunday worship services with up to 99 people. All other meetings, including weddings and funerals, also will be shortened, follow local government regulations and may be held remotely using phone and internet tools.

Phase 2 allows for meetings with more than 100 people. Other meetings still may be held remotely. Eventually, a full return to standard practices is expected.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Decisions on where and when to resume church meetings will be made by area presidencies with guidance from church headquarters, said the letter signed by Presidents Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency. Guidelines sent with the letter instruct leaders to prioritize in-person gatherings for meetings where ordinances are performed, such as baptisms and sacrament meetings.

Pews sit empty in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Salt Lake Stake Center in downtown Salt Lake City amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Some Latter-day Saint congregations in Asia have not gathered for worship services since Jan. 26. On March 12, the First Presidency temporarily suspended all meetings in the faith’s 31,000 congregations worldwide.

Under their area presidency’s guidelines, each stake president will decide on the specific timing for restarting ward and stake meetings. Stake presidents are directed to adjust meeting schedules in meetinghouses with more than one congregation to avoid overlapping schedules.

Wards with attendance above 99 can hold multiple meetings or invite members to attend on alternate weeks.

“We are grateful for the faith of our members as they have worshipped at home, and are grateful for the blessings that will come as we gather for worship and activities,” the First Presidency letter said.

Madison Tennessee Stake President Kevin Releford thought a return to church might still be a month or more away, so he was pleasantly surprised by Tuesday’s letter and guidance. His stake covers large swaths of Tennessee, where government guidelines lifted on May 1, and Kentucky, where gatherings are limited to 10 or fewer people.

Some of his Tennessee congregations feel ready to return to sacrament meetings, but Releford said the biggest request from bishops has been to use meetinghouses for youth activities. He looked forward Tuesday night to hearing from the North America Southeast Area presidency about local guidance.

“We’re doing well,” he said. “Three units out of the 10 in our stake have more people taking the sacrament each week at home than their average attendance was for the three months prior to COVID-19. Three or four other units are at the same level they were. The others are spread over large geographical areas where we try to ensure someone gets the sacrament at least monthly while protecting priesthood holders and people at high risk.”

The weekly Sunday sacrament meeting is a centerpiece of Latter-day Saint faith. Members gather for hymns, prayer, gospel talks and the sacrament, the sacred weekly ordinance in which they renew covenants made with God to live in harmony with the teachings and commandments of Jesus Christ.

A Latter-day Saint priesthood holder wears a mask as he demonstrates how the sacrament may be passed when church meetings resume with pandemic-related precautions. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

By early March, congregations in many countries had stopped gathering for sacrament meetings, Sunday School and other Sunday meetings. Some held virtual meetings on YouTube or Zoom.

Families have instead held sacrament services in their homes.

Sacrament safety

The sacrament service could look different for a while. Bishops are authorized to consider adjusting the way it passed in their congregations. For example, they could ask members to sit in socially distanced arrangements and have priesthood holders offer the trays of bread and water directly to each member instead of having individuals pass trays down the row.

The church issued other specific precautions surrounding the sacrament service:

Latter-day Saint priesthood holders demonstrate how they could sanitize their hands before a sacrament service when church meetings resume with pandemic-related precautions. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

• Priesthood holders who do not feel well should remain at home.

• Priesthood holders may wear face masks while preparing, blessing and passing the sacrament.

• Priesthood holders should thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before preparing, blessing and passing the sacrament. If hand washing is not available, they should use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. They should then avoid shaking hands or touching their eyes, nose or mouth.

• All members should cover their cough or sneeze with a tissue. They should then throw the tissue in the trash and wash or sanitize their hands. Surfaces on sacrament trays, including handles, should be cleaned and disinfected frequently.

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Other safety and sanitation measures

Some members may not be able to join their congregations for renewed meetings because their health or age puts them at high risk for COVID-19 complications, while others still may not be able to gather for weeks. Bishops can continue to authorize priesthood holders to administer the sacrament at homes.

Members should stay home if they feel sick or have a fever, cough, shortness of breath, headache, runny nose or sore throat.

Local leaders are asked to consider how to maintain social distancing as members enter the meetinghouse, chapel and classrooms, as well as during meetings and classes. “People from the same household may sit together, but others should sit with appropriate distance. It is recommended that choirs be temporarily suspended,” the published guidelines said.

Latter-day Saints demonstrate what a sacrament meeting could look like with social distancing practices in place, such as households sitting together while separated from others. Church meetings are scheduled to resume in phases in some areas of the world this weekend with pandemic-related precautions. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Ward leaders may decide to temporarily suspend Primary and nursery classes for young children. They may also decide whether to hold both classes and singing time as a large group.

After each ward meets, leaders will ensure that buildings are thoroughly cleaned, especially doorknobs, light switches, water fountains, microphones and pulpits.

Wards may post signs in restrooms as a reminder to wash hands. Where available, hand sanitizer should be provided in meetinghouse foyers. According to local government regulations, members may be encouraged to wear face masks. Wards may consider discontinuing printed programs until conditions return to normal.

Additional guidelines

The church also addressed other meetings and ordinances:

• The bishop may authorize baby blessings to be performed either at the family’s home or at the meetinghouse.

• Baptismal services may be held with as few as four people. More can join where allowed, and others can view the baptism using remote technology where necessary.

• Converts may be confirmed immediately after their baptism rather than in a sacrament meeting until regular meetings resume.

• The Aaronic Priesthood may be conferred upon males of the appropriate age immediately following their baptism and confirmation.