Even as restaurants and retailers begin to reopen cautiously in Napa County and other parts of the state, churches and other religious institutions remain unsure when they can welcome back their congregations.
But that hasn’t prevented church leaders from considering how best to reopen when the time comes, the Register learned in a survey of area churches.
“We’re looking at a lot of different options ... multiple services, overflow rooms, streaming,” said Julie Polson, communication and media director for First Christian Church of Napa. “We’re still processing. We haven’t quite figured what that will look like for First Christian.”
Pre-pandemic, the church would host about 350 people on an average Sunday, and it had an active roster of groups and activities. Since early March, the church has been posting services online and hosting groups by Zoom and other streaming platforms.
Meanwhile, she said, “we’re gathering supplies, thinking about what it means to sanitize between services, keeping people safe. Keeping everyone safe is our top priority.”
Pastor Burke Owens of the St. Helena United Methodist Church says he worries about his older members, who are especially vulnerable to coronavirus, and he plans to continue virtual services online long after the church is allowed to reopen.
“They will still not be able to attend any kind of service for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Plus, if proper social distancing measures are in place at the church itself, only 20-24 people would be able to attend in person, a fraction of the 50 or so that might have attended before the pandemic.
At First Christian, Polson said the coronavirus crisis is likely to mark a permanent change for churches, particularly in the use of technology to reach parishioners.
“One of the challenges for quite a while now has been is that there is so much else to choose from on Sunday morning,” she said.
The success of using online services and ministries during the pandemic, she said, will move many churches to embrace technology permanently, to enable them to reach busy families whenever and wherever they may be.
She calls it “church on demand.”
“We were moving in that direction anyway,” she said, “But this put us in fast-forward.”
Owens agreed, saying not only are his sermons reaching older members, but also new potential members
“People are coming in and checking (the recorded sermons) later, some of whom have no connection to the church,” he said. “We’re finding it’s expanding our community in ways we would not have expected with social media.”
Churches are included in “Phase 3” of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-stage reopening plan, along with close-up businesses such as hair salons and barbers, and mass gathering places, such as theaters. Napa County just this week entered the early stages of Phase 2, but there is no clear date for moving on to the next phase.
Most churches surveyed by the Register reported some level of planning for the eventual reopening.
“We will require: Face coverings/hand sanitizing/social distancing/sanitizing high contact surfaces/no physical touching/no sickness symptoms felt,” reported the Calistoga Seventh-day Adventist Church, one of 18 churches that responded to the Register’s request for information.
The Napa faithful move holiday services online as houses of worship remain shut during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When reopening is permitted by county and state, all guidelines for physical distancing and sanitation will be followed,” responded St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Napa.
All the churches surveyed reported closing between March 14 and March 22. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a shelter-at-home order, closing or limiting most businesses and events, on March 19. Napa County issued its own rules the day before.
As they await permission to reopen, most local churches reported that they were doing some kind of virtual services, usually in the form of live-streaming platforms such as Zoom or Facebook Live, or with recorded sermons uploaded to a website.
Only one church, Angwin Village Seventh-day Adventist Church, was not doing online services, but they had found a way to serve the congregation anyway.
The church is holding drive-in services, the church reported, “cars six feet apart/depart cars for bathroom break only.”
It can be easy to forget just where the state currently stands on the road to reopening.
Similarly, St. Joan of Arc and Holy Family Mission in Rutherford, is allowing some drive-in worship.
“Not all of our parishioners are aware that we have the Blessed Sacrament exposed if you wish to adore from your car,” the church said. “Or you wish to get (out), please remember the safety guidelines maintain social distancing, make sure everyone has a face mask, we do ask you bring your own chair or pillow to sit/kneel on.”
So far, the Register has heard no reports of local churches defying the governor’s stay-at-home orders and holding in-person services. Most churches that responded to this week’s survey said specifically that they planned to follow whatever guidelines the county sets forth when reopening is permitted.
That has not been the case in other parts of the state. More than 1,200 pastors statewide have told Gov. Gavin Newsom that they plan to hold in-person services on May 31—Pentecost Sunday – whether the state eases the current restrictions or not.
“We believe you are attempting to act in the best interests of the state,” attorney Robert H. Tyler wrote to Newsom on behalf of a Lodi church that has challenged the governor’s rules in court, “but the restrictions have gone too far and for too long.”
In part due to the coronavirus, Napa's St. John's Catholic will close at the end of the school year, officials said.
The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, has warned Newsom that his restrictions on churches may be unconstitutional.
“This facially discriminates against religious exercise,” the department said in a letter to Newsom on Tuesday. “California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential ecommerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not.”
The governor’s office has not commented on the DOJ letter.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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