Is it safe to go to religious services?

  • A number of states are now allowing in-person religious services
  • The CDC recommends avoiding physical contact at houses of worship
  • Gathering in large groups is one of the easiest ways to spread the virus

With states across the United States beginning to reopen, governors in Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Kentucky, Utah, and Oklahoma are including houses of worship in their reopening plans—with more states likely to follow. 

But with the coronavirus pandemic far from over, faith leaders are left to strategize ways to prevent further spread of the virus by reevaluating common church practices. This may mean operating at partial capacity, restricting how people interact with clergy members or other parishioners, requiring the use of masks, and avoiding the use of communal prayer books and songbooks. 

Gathering in large groups is one of the easiest ways to spread communicable diseases, and it should generally be avoided during a pandemic. However, the CDC lists specific preventive actions that can be used to lessen transmission during religious services—strongly encouraging religious leaders to consult with local health officials as needed.

These actions include:

  • Avoiding physical contact such as shaking hands, hugging, kissing, or holding hands during service or prayer.
  • Using a stationary collection box, electronic payment methods, or mailing in church donations instead of passing around a collection tray or plate.
  • Modifying practices specific to particular faith traditions—such as Communion, by placing elements in the recipient’s hand instead of on the tongue or mouth, and avoiding the use of a common cup.
  • Ensuring that religious leaders always wash their hands or use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol prior to conducting the service and Communion.

Why religious practices may need to cease communal singing altogether

In addition to the aforementioned list of common-sense practices, many religious leaders are considering cutting back or completely eliminating singing during church services at the recommendation of epidemiologists—a practice that is seen as a core part of worship for many Christian denominations.

Virologists believe that when people are singing, they tend to breathe deeper into their diaphragms than they would during normal breathing, which may cause them to absorb more particles. Evidence also shows that “during singing, the virus drops appear to fly particularly far,” according to Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s disease control agency after 59 of 78 singers in the Berlin Protestant cathedral choir caught the virus.

In the U.S., a March 3 choir practice in Washington state was the catalyst for one of the earliest widespread outbreaks, which left a total of 52 out of 78 choir members ill due to one asymptomatic carrier. Of these 52 who contracted the virus, three were later hospitalized and two died.

In the wake of these findings, many religious leaders in the U.S. have publicly come out against churches using choirs and ask that parishioners also refrain from group singing. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Metropolitan New York Synod recommends that if music is performed during a service, it should be a solo instrument or something recorded.

Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, says that it’s “tough to give a definitive answer” on whether houses of worship should refrain from any communal singing. But wearing masks may not even necessarily be enough to prevent flying droplets.

“It’s always safer to say no,” he told the Washington Post. “You have a lot of people in an enclosed space for a period of time.” This is true of all religious services, regardless of singing, and something people should keep in mind when determining the right time to resume practices.

Sources: CDC, Washington Post, Guardian

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