Sides is preparing a list of precautionary measures he plans to give parishioners before Sunday. The building will fit only about 40 people at a time vs. the norm of about 240 people, and it will be cleaned between services.
A key decision on which Sides went back and forth was whether to have his parishioners sing. He said an ER nurse from a hospital raised the concern, and he sought advice from several local health officials and searched for answers nationally before ultimately deciding against having people sing.
“I will take heat for my decision from those who will say I have no faith,” he said. “It just makes good sense to me.”
As states reopen, faith leaders are strategizing over how to prevent the spread of disease by reevaluating common practices in churches, including how people will sit in pews, greet each other and avoid the use of communal songbooks and Bibles.
Added to the list of what could spread the virus, communal singing is being reconsidered by many pastors like Sides and music leaders. The practice, seen by Christians as a core part of a worship service, could go against the public health recommendations of some epidemiologists. A similar question is being asked by music teachers and choirs across the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes in its advice about the virus several recommendations for faith organizations, including modifying such usual practices as collecting donations (avoid passing the plate) and Communion (avoid the use of a common cup or placing elements on a person’s tongue). The guidelines, however, do not suggest anything about singing.
Archbishop Leonard Blair, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, suggested to other Catholic leaders that they consider guidelines that recommend that churches not use choirs, according to the National Catholic Reporter. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Metropolitan New York Synod will recommend that churches refrain from singing and that if music is performed during a service, it should be a solo instrument or something recorded.
Should houses of worship refrain from any communal singing? It’s tough to give a definitive answer, said Jeff Schlegelmilch, who worked as an epidemiologist in Boston and is deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. Singing could allow for respiratory droplets to fly farther. Masks might help, but they might not be the complete solution to prevent flying droplets.
“It’s always safer to say no,” he said. “You have a lot of people in an enclosed space for a period of time.”
In early March, a choir practice led to a large outbreak in Washington state, according to the Los Angeles Times. Dozens of choir members who met for practice at a church were diagnosed with covid-19, and at least two died.
In Germany, 59 of 78 singers in the choir of Berlin’s Protestant cathedral caught the virus, according to the Guardian. Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s disease control agency, specifically warned against singing because the virus drops appear to fly particularly far, according to the newspaper.
The Rev. Scott Moore, an Episcopal priest based in Germany, said the country has banned communal singing in some areas. However, one city has said singing is okay if worshipers use masks, and readers and preachers may remove their masks if they are 20 feet away.
“I think many of our parishioners are eager to come back into a shared physical space,” Moore said. “In the places where singing is discouraged or prohibited, there is already a sense of frustration but acceptance.”
In the United States, California’s Mendocino County banned churches from singing while recording online worship services, unless the participants were singing from home.
As pastors are eyeing the possibility of reopening, many are looking to their local public health officials but are still unsure how extreme to change their services. Laura de Jong, pastor of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Mich., said she will probably limit services to 25 to 50 people. She plans to require masks. People will sit spread out, and the church will not have social hour, nursery school or Sunday school.
“One of the biggest challenges I foresee is including children in worship, since we probably won’t have nursery,” she said. “This would be best done by using child-friendly songs, but if singing is out, can we expect 4-year-olds to sit through scripture readings, prayer and a short sermon?”
She said she wondered whether the church should have another service for children that would be simpler.
“I guess ultimately the question I’m pondering is whether it’s more important to gather in groups representing the full and diverse body of Christ, even if that means worship isn’t quite ideal for any one group,” she said, “or gather based on age and participation levels and change things up from service to service to allow fuller participation.”
Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, has urged churches to exercise caution in reopening because any rules they try to create, such as limits on singing, might be difficult to enforce.
Aten, who studies disasters, said he often recalls the numerous trips he made to Japan after the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster there.
“On each trip, I discovered that the ‘safe’ boundary around the radiation zone had been shortened,” he said. “We can take steps to mitigate possible harm from covid-19 in our churches, but until we know more, we don’t really know where our safety boundaries are.”
Several faith leaders in the Washington area said they are still waiting for state and local guidance before opening. Episcopal Bishops of Maryland, the District and Virginia have created guidelines for the next phase of indoor worship in which the bishops plan to restrict the number of people, add restrictive practices for Communion and require masks.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has not yet issued plans for reopening. The Diocese of Arlington said Friday that it will comply with Virginia’s “phase one” reopening, which is expected May 15 and would allow indoor worship at 50 percent capacity. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore wrote on Sunday that plans for churches reopening will include some changes, including no offering of wine during Communion and the requirement of masks.
Several governors across the United States have included houses of worship in their reopening plans. Among the states with such plans are Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Kentucky, Utah and Oklahoma.
For pastors like Sides in Florida, the decision to open was a contentious one, and he ultimately decided — after consulting local health experts — that he would allow people to make a decision for themselves, while he set up physical boundaries and removed hymn books.
“The decision [to not sing] probably applies to all faiths, if they’re blowing air out of their lungs onto furniture and other things,” he said. “I’m sure in every faith, leaders are probably feeling the pressure from both sides.”
After a funeral he conducted in early March, Sides declined to shake hands with one of his church members as the nationwide spread of the coronavirus was becoming more apparent to many Americans.
“He said, ‘Pastor, what’s wrong with you?’ He was really mad. I tried to explain I wasn’t shaking hands at all,” said Sides, who is 63 years old and concerned for his health. “We’ve talked, and I think we’re fine. It really kinda hurt at the time.”
This week, Sides walked into his church to find three women in their 70s writing cards to covid-19 patients, and Sides told them he was remaining socially distant from them.
“One of them told me, ‘As soon as I can, I’m going to hug you to death,’ ” Sides said. “I said, ‘That’ll be fine — one day.’ ”
Michelle Boorstein and Teddy Amenabar contributed to this report.