Religious communities react to new statewide guidelines
Late last month, the California Department of Public Health released updated guidance for places of worship and providers of religious services and cultural ceremonies, prompting some local congregations to resume in-person services.
Key guidelines include physical distancing, the use of face coverings, disinfecting measures, and detailed training of organization leaders and staff on COVID-19 prevention. Indoor capacity is also capped at either 25% or 100 people, whichever is smaller, with outdoor services encouraged where possible.
State guidance also recommends the removal of activities, such as singing, which can increase risk of COVID-19 transmission by airborne droplets, as well as any self-serve food or drink stations.
Among those who returned to a traditional, albeit modified, service were Abundant Life Community Church and Bethel Church, both in Grass Valley.
Stacy Wilson, administrator of Abundant Life Community Church, said that the church has organized an online sign-up form for Sunday services to ensure that reduced capacity doesn’t result in people being turned away at the door. It will also be holding two services, cumulatively giving half of its 200-person congregation the opportunity to attend.
“We do have a lot of people who want to wait another while, and we think that’s fine. We want them to do what they’re comfortable with,” said Wilson. She added that they have taken additional precautions at the church, marking a separate entrance and exit as well as shortening the service to minimize usage of the facility’s restrooms.
Pastor Cindy Johnson said that Bethel Church has paid close attention to information provided by the CDC, statewide guidelines, and Nevada County health officials as they navigate their return to gathering for Sunday services.
“There’s a lot to it, but we’re working to do our part to protect our community and provide a safe place of worship,” said Johnson. She said that most people of Bethel Church feel ready to attend services in person.
Sherry Tygart, a member of Bethel Church, was one of those ready to return.
“It is a sanctuary, which should always be a safe place whether it’s COVID-19 or other issues,” Tygart said.
Both Abundant Life Community Church and Bethel Church will continue to livestream their services for those who choose to stay home.
Grass Valley United Methodist Church, on the other hand, will remain closed to in-person gatherings through this month. Meanwhile, Pastor Becky Goodwin is navigating a major transition at the church as she concludes her time with the congregation after four years.
“That does not mean my people are going to push to open any more quickly, but it adds some tenderness to the situation that we haven’t had live worship and I’m about to retire,” said Goodwin. The church’s new pastor is set to start the first Sunday of July.
At Chabad Grass Valley, Rabbi Nochum Yusewitz had said that all services, outreach, and Hebrew school classes would be kept online for the time being, citing the potential risk of gathering too early. However, Yusewitz added that he will continuously reassess based on public health advisories when forming a timeline for reopening.
Chabad Grass Valley has since cautiously started a Jewish discovery course and a women’s learning group, along with other, small groups. Services are planned to restart this week, said Chyena Yusewitz, program coordinator with Chabad of Grass Valley, in an email.
“Everything we have been doing has been outside with social distancing and masks, individually packaged snacks, etc. … and anything else we can do to do it in a responsible way,” she added.
Reverend Jerry Farrell, lead minister of Unity in the Gold Country Spiritual Center, echoed the sentiment of caution, saying the center will wait to reopen.
“This is a decision you can only make once, and if you make the wrong decision, the consequences can be pretty devastating,” said Farrell. He added that, of about 50 people who responded to a survey on the matter, almost half said they would not return to in-person church services yet, citing health concerns.
Farrell said that it is important for churches to communicate with their insurance company, saying, “If you don’t adhere to the state and county regulations properly, they’re not going to consider that you’ve done your bit and that’s negligence.”
Grass Valley’s Foothill Church, led by Pastor Sam Barger, waited to resume in-person gatherings. They’ve since resumed, though not inside the church.
“We are doing Outdoor Micro Churches where they view our online service, followed with discussion and prayer,” Barger said in an email.
Barger emphasized the difficulty of configuring seating to accommodate the congregation while following the new guidelines, both in predicting the size of each family which will sit together and making enough room for distancing the groups.
“If they can do it, that’s great, but I think it will be simpler for a lot of churches to stay online or do small, home-based groups,” said Barger. “It’s an interesting time we’re living in.”
Victoria Penate is a freelance writer for The Union.
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