Churches and coronavirus restrictions

Social distancing probably will be required when churches reopen their doors as coronavirus restrictions ease.

PHOTOS: Documenting COVID-19 in the Pikes Peak region.

Online church services remain the preferred method of delivery, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

It’s a format many churches are perfecting, said Henry Allen Jr., president of the Pikes Peak Southern Christian Leadership and a deacon at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, which offers live broadcast of its services through the church website.

“Not even with this virus can you stop the word of God — we’re still able to spread God’s word even if we’re doing it from our homes,” he said.

“We love our churches, but a church building does not make you a Christian. It’s what you believe in your heart.”

Tight restrictions on public gatherings remain in force under Gov. Jared Polis’ Safer at Home initiative, which scaled back some rules for retail establishments and other commercial services.

State regulations allow drive-in church services in parking lots if attendees stay in their vehicles and shut off their engines, maintain a physical distance of at least 6 feet, do not socialize or share food or beverages, and either bring their own audio or video or have equipment cleaned and sanitized if it’s handed out to participants.

The limitations are a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

When Colorado churches and worship sites are given the go-ahead to reopen, which could be in the next few weeks, some practices won’t look the same.

The state health department is anticipating that churchgoers will wear coverings over their mouths and noses. Attendees likely will have to stay at least 6 feet apart and not shake hands, exchange hugs or initiate physical contact.

Churches will need to consider providing hand sanitizer and tissues, and follow stricter cleaning and disinfecting procedures. Temperature checks also might become part of the routine .

Some of those precautionary measures are in place at Lake George Bible Church in the Park County community of Lake George. The church has held in-person Sunday services in recent weeks, said the Rev. Randy McKinley, pastor.

Up to 10 people gather upstairs and 10 more flock downstairs during the service, he said. Some wear face masks and some don’t. No one gets within 6 feet of each other, and handshakes and hugs are customs of the past.

McKinley also provides the service on online video conferencing.

“We’re trying to honor the Lord and honor the government as well,” he said.

Attendance has shrunk from 30 to 35 people to 15 to 20 people during the pandemic.

Most people live near the church and rely on it, especially in these difficult times, McKinley said.

“It’s a little awkward, but we don’t have the technology that some bigger churches have, like cameras. We’re trying to provide as much as we can and not cause a problem.”

Lake George hasn’t had any known coronavirus cases, he said.

“People seem to be appreciating the fact that we’ve been offering the service,” the pastor said. “We’re an old church with an older congregation, and there’s still a First Amendment in place in the United States, that the government can’t make laws restricting a meeting of churches for worship purposes.”

Coronavirus and faith: Principles of prayer, love and neighborliness playing out in religious communities

The Islamic Society of Colorado Springs, which on April 23 began the month-long observance of Ramadan, also has kept its mosque open, said President Kamel Elwazeir.

“We told women, children and elderly not to come early on,” he said.

The building has been open for daily prayer but not weekly Friday services.

“We’re not allowing more than three or four members at a time,” Elwazeir said. “We did not want to be a reason for the disease to spread.”

Elwazeir also recommended members wear face masks.

The preemptive measures are within the tenets of the Muslim faith, he said.

Traditional group meals to break the daily fasting required during Ramadan are being done privately, not as a community.

“I think people are being responsible,” he said.

Attendance restrictions, social distancing and temporary liturgical changes are among the differences Catholics will find when churches start offering Masses again, according to an announcement from the Archdiocese of Denver.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila announced Tuesday that he’s extending the suspension of public Masses through May 8. The pause was to have ended Thursday.

The archdiocese is developing guidelines and protocols for when churches resume services, to “protect the health and safety of parishioners, priests and other staff,” Aquila said in announcing the extension.

The guidelines will be ready soon, he said.

“We know how strong the desire is for us to be able to resume public Masses, and that some are getting frustrated as other areas of public life have remained open,” Aquila said.

“But we believe the sacrifices we have all made are truly in the best interest of the common good and are done out of love for each other, our communities and our neighbors.”

Bishop Michael Sheridan of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, which covers 10 counties including El Paso and Teller, said he does not have specifics yet for when services resume.

In a letter to parishioners, Sheridan said as public health restrictions ease, “It’s important for all of us to understand that things won’t immediately go back to normal.”

Among the anticipated changes: “We should be prepared for only a certain number of pews to be available for use.”

It’s possible parishioners may have to sign up to attend a service, as attendance may be limited. The Holy Communion likely will not include distribution of wine, holy water will be absent from fonts, hymnals won’t be found in the pews, and exchanging the sign of peace by shaking hands or hugging won’t be permitted.

“Everyone needs to understand even though parishes will take all reasonable precautions, and sanitize as best they can, there is still a risk of infection for anyone who attends a public Mass,” Sheridan said in his letter. “No one should expect that they will be safer in church than in any other public space.”

Allen of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church said everyone is talking about the changes in society the coronavirus has brought about.

“We all have to be different now,” he said. “It’s going to be uncomfortable, but this, too, shall pass.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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