California Governor Gavin Newsom issued new guidelines on Memorial Day for reopening houses of worship as the state's coronavirus cases continued to climb after President Trump declared them "essential" and pressured governors to reopen them "right away."
Newsom was already facing pressure from more than 1,200 California pastors, and clergy from across California sent the governor a letter last week saying they plan to resume in-person services May 31, regardless of state restrictions. Concurrently, a lawsuit filed by a Southern California church reached the U.S. Supreme Court on Sunday night.
Church services had been forbidden since Newsom's March 19 order and it is expected to look dramatically different following the new state Department of Public Health guidelines.
Churches and other places of worship are not obligated to open under the directive, and the California Department of Public Health said it is "strongly recommended" they continue to provide remote services when possible. Recent outbreaks in at least two counties, Mendocino and Butte, have been tied to church services.
Newsom is giving authority to each county, they can decide whether religious facilities within their jurisdictions may open and can impose stricter rules than the state. Then the guidelines will be reviewed by state health officials 21 days after the county approves the opening, and then health officials will assess the impacts and adjust the guidelines accordingly.
The most noticeable guideline is that attendance must be limited to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 people, whichever is lower.
Houses of worship who choose to hold in-person services or meetings should try and do them outdoors whenever possible, DPH said. Services should be shortened to limit the amount of time congregants are spending around one another.
It suggests providing temperature screenings at the door and requiring all congregants and staff to wear face coverings, use hand sanitizer frequently and practice physical distancing.
Family members who live within the same household are allowed to sit next to one another. Health officials say children should remain with their families for the entirety of the service.
The state says these places of worship should implement physical distancing of at least 6 feet between congregates and the staff with visible measurement markers or possibly limiting seating to alternate rows.
The new guidelines address communion and other similar practices, saying places of worship should try to modify the practices however possible (for example, avoiding the use of a common cup, receiving communion in the hand instead of the tongue, and providing pre-packed communion items on pews).
Places of worship should also consider discontinuing singing in situations "where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets," the public health department said.
State health officials also discourage staff and visitors from shaking hands, hugging or other greetings that break social distancing practices.
Here are other recommendations; you can view full guidelines here.
- Shorten services to limit the length of time congregants/visitors spend at facilities whenever possible. This could include limiting speeches, asking congregants/visitors to put on garments at home before arrival, etc.
- Close places of worship for visitation outside of scheduled services, meetings, etc., whenever possible.
- Consider offering additional meeting times (per day or per week) so that fewer guests attend meetings and services at one time. Clean meeting areas between each use as described in this guidance.
- Consider limiting the number of people that use the restroom at one time to allow for physical distancing.
- Perform thorough cleaning of high traffic areas such as lobbies, halls, chapels, meeting rooms, offices, libraries, and study areas and areas of ingress and egress including stairways, stairwells, handrails, and elevator controls. Frequently disinfect commonly used surfaces including doorknobs, toilets, handwashing facilities, pulpits and podiums, donation boxes or plates, altars, and pews and seating areas.
- Establish frequent cleaning and disinfection of personal work areas such as desks and cubicles and supply the necessary cleaning products. Provide time for workers to implement cleaning practices during their shift. Cleaning assignments should be assigned during working hours as part of the staff's job duties.