It’s no secret families in Tallapoosa County are especially fond of Sunday church services, worship and religious gatherings. The traditional format for these happenings has been altered due to the coronavirus pandemic but Gov. Kay Ivey recently released orders that do not limit the number of people at a gathering.
Churches around the county have the opportunity to choose what is best for their individual congregations in terms of remaining only virtually streamed or returning to in-person services with additional guidelines.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two symptomatic people attended gatherings in a small Arkansas church in early March. Of the 92 church members who attended the gatherings, 35 were later confirmed to have COVID-19 which led to three deaths. Contact tracing showed another 26 cases identified in the community.
“This outbreak highlights the potential for widespread transmission of COVID-19 during in-person, faith-based events,” the CDC wrote in a Facebook post.
The CDC currently recommends following its guidelines and consulting with local public health officials for modifying church practices during the pandemic and when considering when and how to resume in-person group gatherings.
Alexander City First United Methodist Church executive pastor Mike Densmore feels strongly about remaining overly cautious to avoid a spike in coronavirus cases. As of Friday night, there were more than 13,600 cumulatively confirmed in the state and 387 in Tallapoosa County.
“I was watching a medical expert this week and he said that this is not over; we could very easily have another crisis situation if we don’t wear masks and practice social distancing,” Densmore said. “I think our experience will be in direct proportion with how well or poorly we heed that kind of advice.”
As many people can be and remain asymptomatic, Densmore feels wearing a mask is the medically and socially responsible thing to do.
“It’s a gift of grace to our neighbors to have masks on when we’re interacting in a public setting,” Densmore said.
Densmore said his church has not yet announced a future plan regarding services. The church currently provides a Facebook Live at 9 a.m. each Sunday and does not have a date to alter that.
“Our bishop has asked us to refrain from meeting until after June 1 and we officially won’t state anything beyond that,” Densmore said. “We’re anticipating being able to start in the not too distant future but it would be premature to put a date down.
“We’re waiting until close to that (June 1) date because it appears we’re learning something new about this on a regular basis and when we have a clear path to follow then we’ll look at the circumstances and establish that protocol formerly at that point.”
Alexander City Church of Christ pastor Brendan Chance held in-person Sunday service last week at approximately 50% attendance. While Chance said it was great to see his members, he understands not everyone is comfortable going back to this normalcy.
“It was so great to see everyone and be together,” Chance said. “But we had a lot of guidelines that made it kind of inconvenient and probably why some folks didn’t come or are still being cautious.”
Chance said the church has a supply of masks available for anyone who wants one but doesn’t require them to be worn.
“We did ask our people singing to wear masks as advised to us by a pulmonologist,” Chance said. “We came across documented breakouts that came from singing groups and singing indoors so we’re being cautious with that. You project further when you sing.”
While it was not ideal musical worship, it was better to be safe for the congregation’s health.
Every other pew was blocked off and within the open pews, 6-foot markers separated families from being too close to one another. There were multiple sanitation stations around the church and both communion and collection plates were not passed.
“We had areas as they exited they could partake or drop off,” Chance said. “But the group was pretty emblematic of our normal crowd; we did have some older folks.”
Although people seemed happy to attend a traditional church service, Chance said members were also to be respectful of others’ space.
“The attitude of folks there were very excited but respectful,” he said. “Kids didn’t go to the playground and people left fairly quickly.”
Alex City Church of Christ already had a pretty sophisticated broadcast system in place prior to the pandemic, so it will continue to stream online as well.
“We did online prior to this, so we were very prepared,” Chance said. “We haven’t missed a beat so we’ll keep doing our normal thing and continuing with online as we always do.”
St. James Episcopal Church Rev. Rob Iler said his church’s first in-person gathering will be June 7 when the state bishop visits. This service, as well as every second and fourth Sunday from June through August, will be held at Church in the Pines.
“The bishop who comes to visit once a year is coming to visit June 7 so we just decided to wait and make his visit be our first service back together,” Iler said. “So the first service we hold in town (at St. James) will be June 14.”
Those services will still follow strict guidelines with social distancing and limiting the size of each service. There will be no communal Communion challis and each member will receive an individual 1-ounce cup of wine that can be disposed.
“I will put one consecrated wafer into each person’s hand without making contact to keep my hands clean while I serve everybody,” Iler said. “And I will be using copious amounts of sanitizer and probably wearing a mask because at that point because I will be close to people.”
St. James will put coffee hours on hold a little longer to resist the urge to gather and socialize after church.
“None of us used to give this kind of thing much thought but it’s definitely on our minds now,” Iler said. “We want to get back to some semblance of normal but we’ll probably never go back to being as completely oblivious to the things we’re touching and getting in people’s faces. I think this is setting a new standard and will be around for a long time.”
As of June 1, St. James will allow yoga classes, cub scouts, pottery instruction and other organizations to use its facility but asks everyone to sanitize their hands on the way in and out.
While Iler didn’t record worship services before, now it’s become a new normal he plans to continue the method along with traditional services.
“We didn’t ever use videos before this but now we’re all set up for it and it’s going well,” he said. “We will be videoing our services so people, shut-ins, those in nursing homes and people out of town, have the opportunity to see the service.”
His plan is to eventually move to live streaming Sunday services, as right now the online videos are pre-recorded.
Densmore said while he is preaching to an empty congregation, which can be difficult without human reaction, picturing his members as he speaks keeps him going.
“I can actually see them,” he said. “They are in my mind and my heart.”