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Religious leaders weigh reinstating mask mandates and whether they could upset some members

Monsignor Edward Filardi leads a Saturday service on June 5 at St. Paul Catholic Church in Damascus, Md. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Many houses of worship across the nation have allowed people to attend worship services without masks for several weeks now once most of their members were able to get vaccinated. But in the wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance, some religious leaders are weighing the benefits and potential backlash of mandating masks again.

On Tuesday, the CDC said that even vaccinated people should return to wearing masks indoors in areas with substantial or high rates of coronavirus transmission. The CDC also recommended that all people with a weakened immune system also wear a mask, regardless of the number of cases in their area.

The new guidelines come as many religious leaders have implemented their own set of restrictions in their houses of worship to prevent the spread of the virus. Several leaders said this week that they are concerned about the reports of vaccinated people being infected by the contagious delta variant of the virus.

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On the Eastern shore of Maryland, pastor Keith Myer said his church hasn’t mandated mask-wearing since May when Gov. Larry Hogan lifted the state mask mandate for businesses.

Leading a church of about 100 called Harvest Baptist Church in Salisbury, Myer said he will wait for Hogan or a local authority to act because he wants their backing before he considers mandating masks again.

“The risk for pastors is, if I make a shift, I lose people,” said Myer, whose church members have not reported any covid cases. “It’s hard to know what’s the right move here.”

Myer said masking is controversial because there are people who won’t come if it’s mandated and then there are people who won’t come if they don’t think people are wearing masks consistently.

“I’ve got several degrees, but I’m not a scientist,” said Myer, who is also considering implementing social distancing again. “Pastors are very stressed by this.”

Chris Davis, a Southern Baptist pastor in Fairfax County, Va., said that even before the new CDC guidance came out on Tuesday, the leadership at his church was considering mandating masks again.

Church leaders said vaccinated attendees could attend “mask optional” on July 11. He said even though it’s an option, about a third of people attending are still wearing masks.

“With the delta variant, we may need to up our game,” said Davis, who is pastor of Groveton Baptist Church in the Alexandria area.

“[Fighting covid is] like playing soccer instead of football. You don’t line up in a tidy line,” he said. “The field is changing. Every two to three weeks you have variables to consider. You say, here’s what we know now.”

Davis said he looks at the Northern Virginia Regional Commission’s dashboard to see what the numbers look like in his area. Davis expects most in the congregation to get on board with changes, but not everyone does.

“We’ve had people visit and scream at us because they say we’re trusting masks and not Jesus but then they just don’t come back,” he said.

Davis said he is thinking about doing an anonymous poll of whether attendees are vaccinated because some people have said they won’t come back until they know everyone’s vaccinated. He said he knows several people who have been vaccinated because of the spread of the delta variant.

Across the nation, public health professionals are still working to persuade people to get the vaccine, including using religious appeals. The highest refusal rate among religious groups to get the coronavirus vaccine is among White evangelicals, 24 percent of whom report that they will not get vaccinated, according to a new survey from Public Religion Research Institute.

However, vaccine hesitancy has decreased among all Americans. Among religious groups, Jews are most likely to be accepters of the vaccine at 85 percent. Hispanic Catholics have increased the most in vaccine acceptance, from 56 percent in March to 80 percent in June.

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Rabbi Hyim Shafner who leads Kesher Israel in Georgetown said his synagogue went mask-optional three weeks after Washington lifted its mask mandate.

About half of the congregation still socially distances and masks, he said. He assumes everyone is vaccinated except for young children, but he’s discussing whether to go back to mask mandates with other Orthodox rabbis in the country.

“Half of our congregation are singles in their 20s. That’s not a constituent looking to mask up,” he said. "It can be confusing to go back and forth and back and forth. We don’t want to change it every week and confuse people.”

Bobby Hulme-Lippert, pastor of First Presbyterian in Georgetown, Tex., said that his church went back to masks-only on Sunday after several weeks of not requiring them. Williamson County, where the church is located, went from an “orange phase” to a “red phase” and even though it didn’t begin requiring masks, Hulme-Lippert said church leaders decided to have everyone mask up again.

“Everyone felt conflicted last week,” he said. “We want to believe in the progress we’ve made and the vaccinations so many of us have done. It can feel with a decision like this that we’re going backwards.”

But, he said, the latest CDC announcement gave his leaders renewed confidence for their decision.

Although most religious leaders were in the same situation when they shut down their buildings in the spring of 2020, many have since returned to in-person worship with their own list of rules. Many follow guidelines from local public health officials, but with their own interpretations about details such as whether people sing, how they conduct their children’s ministry and return to rituals like Communion.

Across Washington, major religious institutions have a variety of policies. The National Cathedral and St. Matthew’s Cathedral require masks, but at the Basilica of the National Shrine, masks are optional for those who are vaccinated. At the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) mosque, masks are still required, while masks are optional for those who are vaccinated at Falls Church’s Dar al-Hijrah mosque.

The latest question around masks brings yet another round of debates over how to both return to worship and how to protect against a possible spread of the virus.

“In hot spots, churches should consider requiring masks,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center in Illinois. “You don’t want to be part of the problem; you want to be part of the solution.”