HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – At any church, temple or synagogue, you expect to see people worshiping shoulder-to-shoulder, shaking hands and even hugging.
Services have changed over the last two months as the coronavirus descended on communities across the country, and here in Hampton Roads, they won’t immediately go back to normal.
Religious leaders around the region are proceeding with caution, even as Virginia enters Phase 1 of reopening, allowing them to hold conventional services for the first time in two months.
Under Governor Ralph Northam’s guidance, houses of worship can hold indoor services starting Friday, May 15, as long as occupancy doesn’t exceed 50%.
Friday Shabbat service would have been the first opportunity to do so, but Rabbi Roz Mandelberg of Ohef Sholom Temple has opted not to bring the 712 families of her congregation physically together just yet.
“We just couldn’t figure out logistically how we could do it safety,” Mandelberg said. “Our average attendance on a Friday evening is 120, how do we keep people six feet apart? How do we determine who comes in and who doesn’t?”
Mandelberg said she’s also concerned that singing could spread the virus further, similar to coughing or sneezing.
“People’s health and safety are our primary concern and we didn’t feel we needed to be the first to open,” she said.
The temple will continue to meet via Facebook and Zoom indefinitely, where Mandelberg said each service garners thousands of views.
“We would love to be able to see each other in person and hug and pray together and sing together,” she said. “But we understand that at this moment, it’s not safe. We’re not judging anyone else for making the decision to open.”
Leading a much smaller congregation, Pastor Maurice Moore came to a different conclusion.
Kingdom Minded Christian Church in Norfolk will reopen its doors to its 50 congregants on Sunday.
Moore doesn’t expect full attendance, and says a group of that size can be managed safely.
“The difference is mainly going to be, we won’t be able to interact with each other the way we usually do, to ensure that everyone is safe,” Moore said.
Congregants will be asked to sanitize their hands on their way in, sit farther apart and wave to each other instead of the customary greeting of a hug.
Moore plans to address coronavirus health and safety measures during his sermon Sunday.
For those who don’t feel safe enough to come back, the church plans to continue streaming services online, as it has been doing since late March.
“At the end of the day, the purpose of coming together as a church is to get the message out to as many people as possible,” he said.
Parishoners who used to miss Sunday services because of work can now watch online, and the church has picked up viewers from out of state.
As a result, Moore said, his message is magnified and donations to the church have actually increased during the pandemic.
The same is true for Believers Church in Suffolk, although it had been streaming services online long before the pandemic.
Still, the church had work to do once the governor announced in March that houses of worship should close.
“We moved exclusively to all online content,” said Pastor Jamey Stuart. “We were able to move all of our kids’ and students’ environments, including all of our small groups, onto online platforms and it’s gone fairly well.”
Believers does not plan to hold in-person services this weekend, since a typical Sunday draws 1,500 people.
“There were some steps that we needed to take before we were ready and before we felt like many in the congregation would be ready to resume,” Stuart said.
The biggest obstacle to reopening during Phase 1, Stuart said, is the same problem many households are dealing with: a shortage of cleaning supplies.
“All of that stuff is on back order,” he said. “We felt it would be premature to open without being adequately prepared for the cleaning requirements alone.”
The church also plans to add sanitizing stations, close off common areas so that congregants can’t gather socially, and offer three services on Sundays, each with a maximum capacity of 350 people.
The services will be staggered throughout the morning, so that surfaced can be cleaned in between.
Stuart says the church should be able to reopen its doors in June, with childrens and special needs programming to follow later in the summer.
Socially distanced services were already something of the norm at Believers, where handshakes and hugs aren’t a customary part of formal worship.
“I’m a germaphobe and an introvert,” Stuart said. “I figure there’s other people out there like me, where that part of the service makes them uncomfortable.”
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