Should We Reopen Churches?

Pope Francis leads the Palm Sunday mass without public participation due to the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at St. Peter’s Basilica. April 5, 2020. (Photo by Vatican Media)

The Coronavirus loves churches.

They are its perfect breeding ground: confined environments where lots of people gather for a long time to talk, sing, and touch each other.

That’s why temples across the world have closed and masses are conducted online.

Yet in the United States, there’s been a debate. Some states have closed churches, while the President asked them to reopen them.

The debate is necessary. Churches are important for the spiritual and social lives of many people. It’s essential to try opening them back up as soon as possible.

It’s a conflict of values: between the freedom to gather and the freedom to live.

On the other side, dozens of outbreaks started in churches, starting with the massive one in South Korea, which caused around 50% of all the cases in the country.

As a reminder, this is how an image of a Shincheonji church:

Service at a Shincheonji church. Source.

Other countries, such as Germany or France, have seen the same thing.

The US has suffered many other church-related outbreaks, such as in Arkansas, Alabama, Texas, Virginia, California, Kentucky, Georgia, New York, Kansas, Illinois, New Jersey, Arizona, North Carolina… In some cases, like the ones from Virginia or Texas, their priests died of coronavirus. And what makes mass unsafe might also make study groups unsafe.

Those who defend reopening temples frame the debate as a problem of individual freedom: We should be free to meet, since we’re carrying the risk.

If that were the case, it would be reasonable. Unfortunately, that’s not the problem. Those who physically meet are not just endangering themselves. By catching the virus, they might be spreading it in the community outside of church circles. This is not a problem of individual freedom, but one of the freedom of some people to gather physically vs. the freedom of other people to live a healthy life. It’s a conflict of values. Somebody’s freedom stops when somebody else’s freedom starts. What’s the boundary?

We have these conflicts of values all the time. The most obvious are speed limits on the road. We want the freedom to drive fast, even at the cost of some lives. But not too fast, since it would kill more people than we deem reasonable. So we build the road to make it as fast and safe as possible, and then agree on speed limits.

We need to do the same thing for reopening churches. The debate is asking the wrong question. It shouldn’t be “Should we reopen churches?” but rather “How do we reopen churches safely?”

Circles designed to encourage social distancing are shown at Washington Square park in front of Saints Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco. The closure of many churches nationwide has become a political flashpoint. Source: SF Chronicle. Photo: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press

Services are not forbidden during the pandemic. They’re already provided remotely, via videoconference. That’s a start. Many churches also offer drive-in services.

But ideally we’d have in-person services. Since we know what conditions are ideal for the virus, can’t we just adapt them to church services?

If the congregation is in a county with few cases and the services are offered outdoors, with at least 6 feet of distance between people, wearing masks, never singing or talking to each other directly and closely, and being careful with hand hygiene, it is likely that we could be holding these services with very limited risk. What specific decisions can churches make to decide if they’re safe?

First, pastors should be especially careful: As core members of the congregation who talk, touch, and sing with many other people, they are key targets of the virus, and might contribute to its spread. This pandemic might be one of the few times when self-sacrifice is bad for the community, so pastors should stay healthy to protect their congregation.

If they haven’t done it already, they should try online services. They have many benefits: Not only can people keep meeting during the pandemic, but congregations can also explore other ways to keep in touch beyond the traditional ones. Crises are also opportunities. Don’t let this one go to waste. Once you have online gatherings, you’ll see many of the things you used to do physically can be done online.

For physical meetings, check if you belong to a state that is taking all the necessary measures to control the epidemic. For example, Vermont, Montana, Oregon, Alaska or Hawaii are doing great. Wisconsin or North Carolina, not that great. States with better management are much safer for gatherings.

Within your state, if your area doesn’t have many cases, it’s less likely that any single member of the congregation will be sick, and hence spreads the virus. Check the number of cases over the last couple of weeks in your county and make sure there are few infections and they’re not going up. You can translate how many cases there are in your community into a likelihood that somebody in your congregation is sick thanks to the tool from this article.

Once you know few people in your congregation are likely to be infected, gathering live is safer. Even then, there are a few ways you can reduce the risk of transmission.

Avoid choirs at any cost. With many people close to each other, confined for a long time, talking and singing without masks, they are the perfect environment for the coronavirus.

Outdoors is much, much safer than indoors. This might be a great excuse to gather outside, especially given the better weather that is coming. That simple measure might be the difference between an outbreak and no infections, so give it serious thought. If this is impossible, keep doors and windows open. And if you have ventilation systems, use them.

As we all know by now, physical distancing is a key tool to control the epidemic. People should be at least 6 feet apart, ideally 10–12 feet. More importantly, they should avoid singing and talking to each other. Especially without masks. For additional safety, make sure people are not singing or talking in the direction of one another. For example, avoid rows of people that are perfectly aligned. To reduce singing infections, it might be a good opportunity to explore mass with song recordings or other ways to reduce active singing.

Make the use of masks mandatory. It’s very clear that they work, even home-made cloth masks. Even better, order some masks for your congregation, so they show support for the church while wearing them.

You don’t want the virus to spread through objects, so make sure all common areas are cleaned frequently, and objects that are touched by many people are cleaned between each touch. Avoid sharing frequently touched objects, such as worship aids, prayer books, hymnals, etc. Electronic versions are a great option. Giving paper versions away is another. Same thing for financial contributions: Collection trays are a bad idea. Use instead stationary options, or better, take advantage of the situation to open electronic means to get contributions, which might help increase the contributions after the epidemic is under control.

There are many other sources of suggestions to reduce the transmission rate, including from the CDC.

So let’s stop talking about whether we should open churches, and let’s start talking about how we open them.

2 MSc in Engineering. Stanford MBA. Ex-Consultant. Creator of applications with >20M users. Currently leading a billion-dollar business @ Course Hero

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