California Governor Gavin Newsom has finally given his blessing to churches who wish to resume in-person services and gatherings in the Golden State—but with a handful of caveats.
On Monday, the state released guidance under which county health departments can now approve the reopening of churches and other houses of worship which have remained closed since Gov. Newsom’s stay-at-home order was issued back in March.
An exact date on which in-person services will resume isn’t yet known and is dependent on counties successfully mitigating the spread of the coronavirus. Counties like Los Angeles County, which was hit especially hard, may choose to delay reopening.
When they do reopen, worship in California’s churches will likely be a far cry from pre-pandemic services. The state’s reopening guidelines limit attendance to 25 percent of its building capacity or no more than 100 people, and recommend that attendees wear masks, limit singing, and refrain from shaking hands or hugging.
Churches are encouraged to take the temperatures of staff and attendees upon entrance to the building.
Church-going families with children may be faced with a lack of childcare upon returning to church, as the guidelines urge churches to halt children’s programs and close play rooms.
The guidelines also strongly suggest avoiding using any shared items like hymnals or pew bibles, as well as skipping the offering plate. They also say to avoid large gatherings for holidays, weddings, and funerals.
The guidelines go on to say that, even with physical distancing, in-person worship carries a higher risk of virus transmission—leading to hospitalizations and death:
Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations. In particular, activities such as singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.
Lastly, the guidelines strongly suggest that churches “continue to facilitate remote services and other related activities for those who are vulnerable to COVID19 including older adults and those with co-morbidities.”
Each county will have to create its own rules for services to resume within their jurisdictions, which will then be reviewed by state health officials after 21 days.
While news of churches reopening somewhere on the horizon may come as a relief, some argue that California’s churches should never have been prevented from worshiping in the first place.
“An artificial 25% or 100 person limitation on a house of worship is inconsistent with the absence of such limitations on retail establishments,” said Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco lawyer and CEO of the Center for American Liberty. “Simply put, Governor Newsom lacks authority to dictate to California’s faithful, how they may worship. Guidelines, suggestions, education, and support are all welcome. Secular dictates that do not apply to other categories of our daily lives, are not welcome and not constitutional.”
“Governor Newsom, step aside and open up our churches, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras, mandirs, temples, and other places of worship, and let people who wish to worship safely and together, do so,” Dhillon declared. “Until you do, we will continue to pursue our clients’ First Amendment rights in court, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if we must so that this suppress of faith is fully abated and never repeated.”
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