The Rev. Emily Wilton admits that, like many Americans, she’s become less than consistent in how she deals with COVID-19 in her daily life.
“I’m just kind of randomly doing things or not,” she said, explaining that, before donning a mask, she thinks about who she’ll be seeing in the near future, including their age and whether or not they have preexisting conditions.
Such is the case for most people as the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve. Two omicron subvariants — BA.4 and BA.5 — that seem to evade prior immunities are raising questions that were common in the early days of the pandemic: To mask or not? To gather or not? Indoors or out? Six feet apart? What about hugging? Shaking hands?
Confused — and fatigued by years of trying to avoid a virus that seems increasingly unavoidable — Americans are vacillating between vigilance and submission. Faith leaders are no exception.
“I would say there’s a deep desire to be ‘back to normal,’” said the Rev. Wilton, who leads Titusville United Methodist Church in New Jersey. When her church temporarily tightened restrictions again during the first omicron outbreak in December, there was “just this sense of going backwards,” she said, adding that, since then, the church has moved steadily toward being completely open.
“I’ve tried to intentionally frame each change that we’ve made as, ‘This is what we need to do right now to be safe, to care for one another, and let’s not think about it as progress because then it’s harder to go back if we need to,’” she said.
Now, her congregation isn’t doing much to address the latest COVID-19 subvariants, the Rev. Wilton said, explaining that the “vast majority” of her small congregation is vaccinated. “Not that that seems to make a big difference these days,” she added. “But, from what I gather, there doesn’t seem to be too much concern with the new variants.”
Amid the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 surge — which experts say could become the second-largest wave of the pandemic — other religious leaders say they’re facing tough decisions about whether or not to reinstitute the pandemic protocols they’ve already done away with. Most say they’re monitoring the situation closely, looking at both local infection and vaccination rates, as well as hospitals’ capacity, but they are currently leaving it up to congregants to make individual decisions.
“We’re going to react differently to an increase in cases than we would have a year ago, and I think that’s probably true for most people. As far as church goes, I think the combination of pandemic fatigue, availability of vaccines and hospital capacity makes us less likely to make major adjustments today compared to two years ago,” said the Rev. Brennan Hurley, associate pastor of Stonington United Methodist Church in Illinois.
In general, synagogues are taking a similar approach, though there is at least one synagogue that has resurrected its mask mandate.
“I think there’s a different story in every part of the country,” said Amy Asin, vice president of congregational engagement and leadership experiences for the Union for Reform Judaism. She added that while she doesn’t know of any congregations that have reinstated pandemic protocols, these conversations are happening. She also said that congregations that had protocols in place that they stopped enforcing — like mask mandates — might start enforcing those rules again.
In Rochester, New York, Temple Sinai recently sent an email to members announcing its COVID-19 task force has decided to again make masks mandatory for all indoor religious services. The decision came after an attendee tested positive the day after a synagogue event; after sharing the news with other attendees, several more tested positive a few days later, the email said.
The email cited the ease of at-home testing as a factor in the decision. “While Monroe County maintains a transmission status of ‘Low,’ there is concern about the number of cases growing and the threat of an upswing due to the highly transmissible variants, BA.4 and BA.5. With home tests available widely, there is also concern that our transmission status may actually be higher with people testing positive at home and not reporting,” it said.
Though many religious leaders and congregants are behaving as though the worst of the pandemic is over, the Rev. Hurley said he hoped that his church and others wouldn’t put COVID-19 behind them because it “forced the church to adapt, something the American church hasn’t been so good at in the past.” He urged clergy to hold on to “the blessings” that the virus has brought.
In the past year, the Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede — who does pianoside chats for her congregation in Omaha, Nebraska — has added phone sermons to the slate of options.
The number is local for Omaha residents and the Rev. Ahlschwede updates the recording on a weekly basis. “It’s scripture and a short version of a sermon. I’ve got one gal who calls three times a week for her devotion,” she said, adding that “it’s important to us to keep those options open.”
While the Rev. Ahlschwede is happy with the ways her church currently keep congregants both safe and in the fold — attendees continue to space themselves out in the sanctuary and she doesn’t know of any church member who isn’t vaccinated — she said she’s continuing to closely monitor the COVID-19 situation.
“I keep an eye on both our vaccination rate and the hot spot meter, if you will,” the Rev. Ahlschwede said. “We’re still not one of the hottest.”