Several of the larger churches in town are opting to stay with the remote worship plan through part or all of May before eyeing a transition to in-person services. These decisions come after the state released updated guidelines for houses of worship on Monday.
The guidelines cover topics such as seating arrangements, disinfecting practices and screening processes. They advise houses of worship as to health protocols for attendees, employees and volunteers and facilities.
Joint guidance from the attorney general and governor specify the protocols are only recommendations, but also state that houses of worship “play an important role in slowing the spread of COVID-19, and can use their creativity to help protect their communities.”
Of the local churches reached by the Kerrville Daily Times, only one, First Assembly of God, planned to have in-person services on Sunday.
First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, First United Methodist Church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Notre Dame Catholic Church and Zion Lutheran Church intend to continue with remote worship for at least a few weeks, though several are planning their return to in-person gatherings.
“We’re pretty excited that we get to open,” First Assembly of God Pastor Phil Jackson said, “but we’re going to do everything we can to be first of all obedient to God and secondly, obedient to those civil rulers we have as well and try to do everything we can to help everybody in these times.”
Jackson said the church leaders made a plan Tuesday using guidance from the state about minimum standard health protocols. He said their plan follows the protocols and exceeds some of the guidelines.
Key components of the congregation’s plan include creating a special seating section for people over 65 who choose to attend services; offering three service environments instead of the usual one to allow for social distancing; asking at-risk individuals to stay home; providing sanitation stations; recommending all attendees wear masks and gloves; measuring temperatures for every person before they enter on Sundays; and temporarily closing the church nursery on Sundays.
With the temperature taking, volunteers will ask those with a temperature of 100 degrees or higher to watch online or see a doctor before attending services again.
The worship area will be sanitized between each gathering, and Jackson said people may be turned away because of occupancy rules.
Jackson said the procedures are subject to change as needed because new information is constantly being released.
He said it’s important for each person to make the decision about attendance for themselves based on what the Holy Spirit is saying to them. The church is not going to put a guilt trip on anyone who decides to stay home.
“We’re pretty excited that we get to do this,” he said. “We knew it was coming eventually.”
At First Baptist Church, the goal is to have an in-person service on May 24, which is Memorial Day weekend.
However, Pastor John Hiddema said if there is an uptick in local cases, they may hold off on that. A drive-in service is planned for Mother’s Day May 10.
Hiddema said while he appreciated the state designating churches as essential services and sending out the protocols, “The guidelines are just impossible. It’s like how in the world do you do that?”
He said the church would need to quadruple the size of its auditorium to be able to meet the social distancing measures outlined in the state’s guidelines.
Whenever the church does worship in person again, they will use both auditoriums to allow for social distancing. Worshipers in both would have live music, but only one auditorium would have the pastor physically present preaching. The other would watch the pastor preach live by video.
While the livestream services and Zoom Bible studies have been going well, people are missing the in-person contact, Hiddema said.
“People are ready,” he said. “They are ready to connect again face-to-face.”
David Evans, acting head of staff and pastor at First Presbyterian Church, said the congregation is committed to livestream services through the end of May and will make a decision about June as it gets closer.
Evans met Monday with the church’s eldersand presented a proposal for guidelines that would direct their decision about reopening.
“Basically, I am using the guideline that we’re going to love God and love our neighbors by continuing to make decisions using that ethic and right now the ethic says we need to stay apart to love one another,” he said.
He told the elders there likely would be pressure to reopen because other churches are and the members are anxious to gather together again. However, he said, it is important to stay the course “until we feel (really) comfortable that it’s safe for our people to come back together again.”
The presbytery, which is the governing body above the church, has created its own set of detailed guidelines. Evans said those outline a plan that would involve a soft opening, much like Gov. Greg Abbott has done with the state. So the church would open small parts of the building first, such as the office, and see how that goes before eventually getting to the sanctuary.
“The point of a soft opening is we want to be sure people can stay far enough away from one another so (there) is no possibility we can violate social distancing,” he said.
At Kerrville First United Methodist Church, Pastor David Payne said the congregation will continue to worship remotely through May before the church considers in-person services.
“We are looking at options and possibilities for how we can do that in a way that is safe and honoring to all people,” Payne said.
The bishop of the Rio Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, of which First UMC is a part, sent the state guidelines and additional information to its churches.
First UMC is reviewing those guidelines and thinking about how to adjust processes such as entering and exiting, serving communion and greeting people. Payne and nine lay leaders comprise the church’s executive team and will be planning for the reopening along with staff.
“We’ve had good numbers,” he said of the online services, “... but I think everyone has a sense of longing for in-person worship.
“We’ve been careful in our language that we’re still having church because church has never been about a building,” he said. “In that sense, it’s been very successful and our Bible studies and classes meet by Zoom and we continue to have people find creative ways and sacrificial ways to connect with each other.”
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church will continue restrictions on in-person church worship and meetings through at least May 15. The church offers a virtual service of Holy Eucharist at 10 a.m. Sundays.
In an email sent to the parish, Rector the Rev. Bert Baetz, said the Rt. Rev. David Reed, bishop of the Diocese of West Texas, extended the restrictions through that date.
There is no exact date set for in-person gatherings at St. Peter's, but the bishop's office will provide guidelines for the process, according to the email.
“It is the bishop's and our fervent hope and prayer that in the not too distant future we can begin to reopen for in-person worship and begin to resume something resembling normal church life,” Baetz said, according to the email. “But, we all need to understand that this reopening will be phased, and the bishop will provide guidelines for the reopening sequence.”
Notre Dame Catholic Church will continue its remote worship with livestreamed Mass through at least May 18, after which they expect an update from the archbishop about how to move forward. Mass is livestreamed at 9 a.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Zion Lutheran Church plans to continue online through May, with a drive-in service set for May 31.
“We’re hoping to be back in our sanctuary with our services as they were June 7,” said Misty Erland, youth director and volunteer coordinator. “But, we’ll have to see.”
State Guidance for Houses of Worship
Health Protocols for Attendees and Facilities*
- Strongly encourage at-risk population to watch services from home. This group includes people who are 65 or older, especially those who have chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, chronic heart disease, severe obesity, diabetes, chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis, liver disease, or weakened immune system.
- Designate a reserved area inside the building for at-risk people who choose to attend or a service for this group only.
- Keep at least two empty seats or 6 feet of separation between parties in any row.
- Two or more members of the same household can sit next to each other, but they have to have two seats or 6 feet of separation on either side of their group.
- Two people who are not part of the same household, but are attending together can sit next to each other, but they have to have two seats or 6 feet of separation on either side of their group.
- Alternate rows for seating, meaning every other row is left empty.
- Frequently clean and disinfect regularly touched surfaces such as doorknobs, tables, chairs and restrooms.
- Disinfect seats between services and disinfect any items that come into contact with attendees.
- Hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, soap and water should be readily available to all in attendance.
- Signs should remind people of hygiene practices.
- For houses of worship that provide meals to employees, volunteers or attendees, those should be individually packed for each recipient.
- Maintain rigorous sanitation practices like disinfection, handwashing and cleanliness when preparing or serving anything edible.
- Employees and volunteers should be trained on appropriate cleaning and disinfection, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette.
- Screen employees and volunteers before coming into the house of worship.
- Send home any employee or volunteer who exhibits one or more COVID-19 signs or symptoms or has been in close contact with someone confirmed to have the virus.
- Employees or volunteers who are sent home for exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, should not return to work until they meet certain criteria indicating they have recovered from the virus or they never had the virus in the first place (a medical professional’s note clearing them to return based on an alternative diagnosis).
- Employees or volunteers who are sent home because of close contact to someone with lab-confirmed COVID-19 can return to work after 14 days of self quarantine from the last date of exposure.
- Employees and volunteers should wash or sanitize their