He is worried about trying to keep his parishioners physically apart — as required by Virginia’s “phase one” reopening rules — while they maneuver to get seated for worship. For now, he said, he won’t be taking the governor up on the offer to host indoor services at 50 percent capacity.
“It would feel like an episode of ‘The Walking Dead,’ ” he said, referring to the television show about a zombie apocalypse. “People would want to hug you, then you feel like a jerk for not hugging them back.”
In Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is allowing localities to end a prohibition on religious services this weekend, the Rev. Lisa Rzepka has spent weeks creating a space in the courtyard of First Presbyterian Church of Annapolis that would enable up to 50 people to safely pray together.
Even so, she worries about how to keep children apart from one another and says she will need two weeks after any relaxation of regulations before she would feel comfortable hosting an outdoor service.
“I think people will be slow to return back, by nature of their fear,” she said.
In Maryland and Virginia, pastors said they were worried about exposing elderly congregants, who are especially susceptible to the deadly coronavirus, and concerned about whether the extensive safety restrictions — including keeping non-family members six feet apart — would make it impossible to be in community.
They said they feel deeply conflicted about how best to serve their parishioners, many of whom have waited for weeks for a chance to sit in the pews together.
Absher leads City on a Hill, a Pentecostal church that normally attracts about 250 on a Sunday. Should he do the smaller, indoor services, keep a head count and put overflow in the parking lot, he wondered? Does he tell senior citizens, who are especially at risk, not to come — and risk offending them?
For now, he will keep preaching from the bed of a flatbed truck for drive-in services, which he calls “tailgate camp meetings.”
He said he fears backlash, since several smaller churches kept hosting indoor church services for their 30 or 40 members during the shutdown period — in violation of Northam’s ban on gatherings of more than 10.
“They see us as having a lack of faith,” Absher said. “Some of my preacher friends like the defiance: Stick it to the Man, shake your fist.”
About 20 miles east of Absher, in Bluefield, Va., Southern Baptist Pastor Jim Drake of Parkview Baptist Church plans to open his building up on Sunday and ask parishioners to wear masks.
Drake kept his church open for a week in March after many of the churches in his area shut down, and he attracted parishioners from some of them. This weekend, too, he expects to attract a few newcomers.
“Folks are really desperate to get back with their church families,” he said. “If you’re comfortable going to Walmart, then we can be comfortable gathering for church.”
The church, which normally attracts about 80 worshipers, will split the congregation between two services, rope off every other pew and clean surfaces after the first service.
“I’m expecting it to be awkward,” Drake said. “Just imagine you’re seeing your best friends, you get to get together to hang out and not give a hug.”
Some pastors who will open their buildings fear public scrutiny or protests and declined interview requests.
Even as some buildings open, many parishioners are not ready for in-person services.
Al Swallow of Amherst, in central Virginia, said he and his wife — both in their 80s — attend Clifford Baptist Church, which will resume in-person services this weekend, with the 800-person congregation split into thirds. The first group, with last names starting with A through H, will go to the church Sunday and sit six feet apart. He and his wife would be in the third group, able to attend in two weeks from this weekend, but Swallow said they probably will not go.
“We’ve decided that we aren’t going to be the pioneers in going out,” Swallow said.
Several mosques in the Washington area are trying to set up plans for Eid, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan and takes place May 24. The leaders of Dar Al-Hijrah in Northern Virginia have asked Northam to let them meet in a large parking lot and do prayers safely distanced from each other.
“My concern is, if we don’t do something for the community, people will want to connect themselves and may not meet the guidelines we’re able to control in having a community function,” said Saif Rahman, Dar Al-Hijrah’s director of public and government affairs.
The Rev. Vernon Walton, who leads First Baptist Church of Vienna, a predominantly African American congregation, said that he will not rush to open his doors even when Northern Virginia does reopen, because the black community is considered an especially vulnerable population. He has all kinds of questions — including whether to remove seat cushions from the pews or whether to do temperature checks.
“We are big on handshakes and hugs. We are big on community meals,” he said. “During passing of the peace, we literally spend time walking around giving people hugs, giving people kisses, shaking hands. Choirs are a huge part of our worship experience. We’ll have to rethink the way we serve the sacraments.”
Reopening at full capacity will probably be especially challenging for megachurches. Mark Batterson leads National Community Church in Washington and Virginia, where up to 5,000 may attend services across seven locations. He said he thinks the church will not be operating normally until there is a vaccine.
“When the government gives the green light, that doesn’t mean we’ll automatically say, ‘Here we go!’ ” he said. “We feel less comfortable in the rented facilities we can’t control.”
Earlier this month, the Episcopal dioceses of Virginia, the District and Maryland issued a reopening plan with four phases. The last one includes a successful vaccine, widespread effective testing and treatment that works. The plan also said parishes won’t move from the shutdown to the next phase until there have been 14 days consecutively of fewer people testing positively for the novel coronavirus, among other benchmarks.
The Rev. Anjel Scarborough, rector at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Owings Mills, outside Baltimore, said churches in the diocese will remain closed for now, even if government officials decide they can open.
“The ethic of Christian care is absolutely the most important thing,” Scarborough said, noting that one-third of the denomination is over 65. “A number of members have expressed that this is too soon.”
She said there are conversations about having some kind of outdoor worship further into the summer, “but we’re not ready for this weekend,” noting that a lot of Episcopal practices involve touch and singing.
“We have to rethink the things we took for granted to find ways to come back together to worship safely,” Scarborough said.
The Catholic Dioceses of Arlington, Richmond and Baltimore have issued letters of what to expect when they reopen. Space will be limited, face coverings or masks will be encouraged or required, and the distribution of wine during Communion will be suspended.
Rabbi Dovid Asher of the Richmond synagogue Keneseth Beth Israel said he would be following the guidance of the Orthodox Union, which says to hold off opening buildings.
The synagogue is planning for what a gradual reopening of buildings and public worship could look like, including tweaks to the service. They could, for instance, eliminate the ritual where the Torah is passed among a few people, to limit the number of people touching the same item.
“There is a religious value to be at services,” Asher said. “But there also exists an even more important religious value to preserve health and, by extension, preserve life.”
Emily Davies contributed to this report.