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What it’s like to reopen a church

Pastors say initial sanitation and social distancing plans have to be regularly revised.

Very Rev. Martin Diaz prepares to offer communion to those attending Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
The Very Rev. Martin Diaz prepares to offer communion to those attending Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Rev. Leroy Davis wants his church to feel as safe as Costco. The service will hopefully be a little more personal, he said, but the environment should seem just as clean.

To accomplish this goal, the Rev. Davis and his deacons at Hopeful Baptist Church in Montpelier, Virginia, spent hours over the past month discussing how to sanitize the sanctuary and manage crowds before resuming in-person services last Sunday.

They purchased individually packaged communion elements, propped open doors, removed hymn books and Bibles from the pews and put X’s on the ground in the parking lot reminding people to spread out.

“We followed both jot and tittle of the governor’s requirements for reopening,” the Rev. Davis, who serves as Hopeful Baptist’s pastor, said.

All the prep paid off. The church upheld new social distancing rules while hosting around 70 worshippers last weekend, and leaders are now talking about how to increase capacity in the weeks ahead.

“There were two surprises (last Sunday.) One was the number of people who came and the second was that there weren’t any other surprises,” the Rev. Davis said.

Despite early successes, he and other leaders of recently reopened churches have no plans to get complacent. They said they’ll regularly revise their new worship guidelines to keep people safe and encouraged other churches resuming services to do the same.

“After each service, ushers and (church) leaders stand 6 feet apart to discuss what we noticed, what we think we should do differently and everything else,” said the Rev. Martin Diaz, rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, which resumed daily services on May 11.

President Donald Trump appears to trust religious leaders’ commitment to safety. On Friday, he urged governors to allow churches across the country to reopen this weekend.

“The ministers, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders will make sure that their congregations are safe as they gather and pray,” he said.

Good intentions don’t always guarantee good results. At least two houses of worship — one in Texas and one in Georgia — have had to reclose after several congregation members tested positive for COVID-19.

Through vigilance, leaders of other churches hope to keep a potential outbreak at bay.

“We’re encouraging (social distancing) by word of mouth and showing a video on it also,” said the Rev. Robby Foster, senior pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Valdosta, Georgia, which reopened last Sunday. “So far, people have done everything we’ve asked them to do.”

Reopening involves a lot of stressful and exhausting work, but religious leaders said they’re thrilled to be doing it. It feels good to see people in pews again, even if they’re spread out and wearing masks, the Rev. Diaz said.

“People are coming, checking in with God and joining with the community,” he said. “It’s just a joy to see all of that.”

Early glitches

Many churchgoers share pastors’ excitement about resuming in-person gatherings, which sometimes causes problems for service leaders. The Revs. Diaz and Davis both brought up worshippers’s early arrival times as an issue that needs to be addressed in the weeks ahead.

“We had to ask some people to remain seated in their cars until we had all our crew in place,” the Rev. Davis said.

Early arrivals also contributed to another common glitch: imperfect seating arrangements. People knew to avoid blocked off pews, but they sometimes spread out inconveniently in the seats that were available, the Rev. Diaz said.

“People like to do what they’ve always done. If they’ve always sat in the middle (of a pew), that’s where they want to sit,” he said.

The cathedral had planned on having worshippers stay close to the aisle, so that two family groups could fit within the same pew. Families who spread out made this approach unworkable and also changed where cleaning crews needed to concentrate their efforts.

“We’ve started taking a photo of where everyone was seated to be sure we cleaned there,” the Rev. Diaz said.

The cathedral has also had to find ways to alter people’s instinct to leave as soon as the service ends. Quick departures threaten the church’s goal to keep people from different family groups at least 6 feet apart, the Rev. Diaz said.

“What we’re asking people to do as they come out of the pew is to distance themselves from the people who left in front of them,” he said.

For the most part, cathedral leaders and volunteers have focused on finding solutions to these unexpected issues, rather than scolding the people who create them, he added.

Like other leaders at reopened churches, they’re trying to keep small problems in perspective and find moments of levity during this stressful time.

“I do kind of laugh every once in a while and think, ‘OK, God. Thank you very much. We’ll just keep going,’” the Rev. Diaz said.

More challenges ahead

After every service, the Rev. Diaz and other cathedral leaders circle up with volunteer ushers to discuss how things went. They review issues that cropped up and decide whether the solutions people instituted on-the-fly brought about the best possible outcome.

“We always think, ‘We got pretty close, but it wasn’t 100%. Next time, let’s try again,” the Rev. Diaz said.

In some ways, these past two weeks have felt like trial runs for bigger challenges ahead, he added. Eighty people attended afternoon Mass last Sunday but, for the most part, the church has only dealt with around 20 worshippers at a time.

“People are being very cautious. They want to see how it goes and maybe wait until June to make sure we don’t get another spike” in cases, he said.

The Rev. Diaz is glad his congregants are taking it slow. The cathedral reopened in order to serve people who felt isolated, not to force all church members to leave their homes.

“We have repeatedly said you don’t have to come until it feels safe to come,” he said.

When more people start coming, the cathedral will likely have to adjust its current procedures, the Rev. Diaz said. Church leaders might start requiring congregants to sign up to attend Mass.

“So far, it’s been OK. There’s been plenty of room,” he said.

Similarly, the Rev. Davis said his church is preparing a contingency plan in case attendance starts to get close to capacity.

“We’re getting prepared with an overflow room,” he said.

In the weeks ahead, Hopeful Baptist Church will continue to stay in close contact with health officials and other advisers to be sure they’re following the latest gathering guidelines. Virginia’s Southern Baptist leaders have been great and rounding up and passing on key pieces of wisdom, the Rev. Davis said.

“They share everything they get their hands on, whether it’s procedures, plans, tips or other things to think about,” he said. “We don’t have to invent the wheel ourselves. We just have to fit it to our church.”

The Rev. Diaz is also giving thanks for his trusted advisers and volunteers. The pandemic has been horrifying in many ways, he said, but it’s also brought out a spirit of cooperation that used to be missing from the world.

“It’s easier to do ministry under regular conditions than during a virus, but I just appreciate all the work people are doing to take care of people,” the Rev. Diaz said.

Time apart makes you realize how great it is to be together, the Rev. Foster said.

“I got very emotional (at the first in-person service.) I hadn’t seen my people in 64 days,” he said. “I would have loved to hug everyone if I could.”