Churches are beginning to reopen. In some states, churches have been allowed to open for several weeks with specific social distancing guidelines in place. In other harder-hit areas, many churches are waiting for the cue to open from state and local governments. Many churches have been worried about reopening too early and exposing members to COVID-19, notably higher risk attendees.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that churches have been significant sites for the coronavirus spread. One study of a small, rural Arkansas church showed that nearly 40 percent of its attendees developed confirmed cases of COVID-19 in mid-March after going to services where the pastor and his wife were infected. The media has also covered cases of churches who defied CDC warnings and later contracted COVID-19. Most churches appear to have shut down and do not seem to rush to reopen. Now, the question remains, is it ok for Christians to worship during the coronavirus pandemic?
First, those going to church need to be mindful of the risks. Health experts say that church is a high-risk setting for COVID-19 transmission. Church activities contain multiple factors that facilitate airborne COVID-19 spread. One of the significant risks is singing in church. Many health experts are discouraging congregational singing, at least for now. While singing is a vital part of worship in so many churches, it can be dangerous amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The president of the Performing Arts Medical Association said that there is no safe way for singers to rehearse together until there is a COVID-19 vaccine and a 95 percent effective drug treatment available. Speaking alone releases two to 10 times as many particles as coughing. Airborne droplet nuclei generated by singing is six times more than that emitted during normal talking.
Another reason singing in churches can be dangerous is because of the lack of proper ventilation, which is a significant concern given how COVID-19 spread. According to Dr. Kevin Kavanaugh, in an article for MJH Life Sciences, “The combination of singing in close quarters and decreased ventilation is nothing short of a petri dish for viral growth.”
Recently, a church in Mount Vernon, Washington, found out how quickly the coronavirus can spread among choir members. When there were no restrictions on large gatherings in early March, the director of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church held a rehearsal. At the time, 60 of the 121 members attended.
According to the LA Times, members did not share the usual hugs or handshakes. A greeter offered hand sanitizer. Also, singers brought their sheet music and tried to keep some distance between members. Those who attended said no one was coughing, sneezing, or appeared sick. The choir practiced lasted two and a half hours. Within several days, 45 choir members had been diagnosed with COVID-19 or showed symptoms. Two died.
“Singing, to a greater degree than talking, aerosolizes respiratory droplets extraordinarily well,” Erin Bromage, associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth said. “Deep-breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two-and-a-half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place.”
Until a vaccine and drug treatments are readily available, “social distancing, including masks, gloves, and spacing is key,” medical director of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of South Carolina, Dr. Lucinda Halstead said.
Halstead did acknowledge that no spacing solution would eliminate the risk for choirs, face masks do not provide adequate protection, and testing still results in too many false negatives.
Churches that plan to open should carefully consider when and how to resume in-person ministries and have a clear plan to do so. Christianity Today highlights the measures churches should have in place when they reopen. First, these churches should mitigate the risk of airborne COVID-19 transmission during church activities. Next, the church should be able to dial-up and dial down church activities as COVID-19 infection in the community fluctuates. Then, the church should be able to rapidly identify contacts with an infected person and help trace them if necessary. Finally, churches should resume in-person church activities only when there is clear evidence of a declining and low level of infection in the community.
If your church is still not ready or able to reopen, there are still other ways to worship without meeting in-person. Connecting and worshiping virtually has become the new norm for so many ministries. These churches are connecting through Facebook and other platforms like Zoom. Many churches are seeing their social media presence grow as more people are tuning into online services than ever before.
The Bible says, “Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship. But we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer” (Hebrews 10:25). Scripture tells us that it is an excellent habit to attend church and worship regularly. Church is essential for fellowship. It is also a place where we come together to hear God’s Word and encourage each other. We do this not only through prayer but also by being involved in classes, groups, and serving where we get to know, pray, help, and encourage others on an intimate level. Church is a good habit, and when it is a regular part of our practice, we benefit. Those who we are in community with benefit as well. Just because we may not be able to attend church in person does not mean that we cannot worship. We may be called to worship differently right now.