Practical Guidance for Religious Organizations Regarding Re-Opening and Managing Risk during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The global pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way people live their daily lives. This includes how people congregate, worship, and gather with those within their religious communities. These religious interactions are essential for many people. In many ways, guidance for protecting people gathering for religious purposes is not that different from guidance for companies or retailers. However, there are unique issues presented for religious organizations.

First and foremost, before inviting members of your community to gather, be sure to know and understand the various state and local orders in place that govern capacity and other facets of your operations.  It is important to establish policies and procedures that comply with all applicable guidance in order to protect your organization and its community members.  Once you have developed those policies and procedures, it is critical to communicate them. Highlight them on your website, communicate them to the members of your community, and post them on doors. This will ensure that no one enters your facility without knowing expectations.

Second, it is vital to maintain a clean and disinfected space for people to congregate.  If the community provides more than one service per day, it is recommended that those services be spaced far enough apart to allow for cleaning and disinfecting of all common areas and high-touch surfaces between services. In addition, there should be a routine cleaning and disinfecting schedule for the entire facility. Cleaning products should comply with governmental guidelines and contain at least 60% alcohol. However, these products should not be used while members of the congregation are in attendance, or near children. Communities should consider whether their ventilation systems are operating properly and whether doors and windows can be opened to increase circulation. If your community has been shut down for a period of time, you should take steps to ensure that all water systems are safe to use in order to minimize the potential risk of Legionnaires’ disease and other water-based diseases. With regard to water fountains and water baths, consider offering alternative options that would help minimize the risk of spreading the virus.  For example, installing a water dispenser with disposable paper cups in lieu of a drinking fountain; or have an officiant use an aspergillum to administer holy water in order to eliminate a high-touch surface.  In addition, rather than use hymnals or other shared items during services, consider printing out a copy of the order of mass or other service, including the music that will be played, and having them placed on the seats for those in attendance. 

Third, it is important to observe recommended safety guidelines during services. Promote cleanliness and hygiene throughout, including having adequate supplies like disinfecting soap and hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Post signs on how to stop the spread of COVID-19 with everyday protective measures. Best practices suggest conducting temperature screening and maintaining a log of attendees in order to contact people for communications related to contract tracing. Practice social distancing, regardless of whether there are limits imposed on the size of religious gatherings, including clergy, staff, volunteers and attendees, in line with their faith and traditions. To the extent that alternative locations are available that are larger or provide better ventilation, consider moving the services. Consider modifying specific physical touching (holding or shaking hands) during the services and instead offer congregants an alternative way to convey the intended message. Communities should also consider placing markings on the seating to demonstrate six feet of distance. For the safety of all in attendance, it is recommended that communities encourage or require the use of masks among all attendees to the extent possible.  Finally, it is ideal to offer (or continue to offer) virtual services to those who are unable to attend due to health concerns. 

Fourth, religious organizations should also consider implementing and adhering to these recommendations in connection with other gatherings such as funerals, weddings, religious education classes, youth events, childcare and any other programming, where they can be followed consistent with faith traditions. If food is served at religious events, consider whether it can be pre-packaged, rather than buffet or family style.

Simple common sense measures such as social distancing, outdoor gatherings when possible, frequent hand washing, and most importantly mask wearing should be implemented to help prevent the virus spread by respiratory droplets that may become airborne. By planning ahead and taking each of these recommended precautions, religious organizations can do their very best to protect all members of their religious community and their families, including those who may be vulnerable to contracting the virus.

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