Following the CDC’s July 27 release of updated coronavirus-related guidelines recommending all people, vaccinated or not, wear masks indoors, churches around the nation are again faced with decisions about how to handle masking and social distancing.
The new guidelines come as the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which health officials believe is more infectious than previous strains, continues to spread in the U.S.
Updated guidelines recommend in part that fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of high possibility of transmission, and that all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
The new CDC guidelines, coupled with the Fairfax (Virginia) County Health Department’s notice that the county had moved from a moderate level of COVID-19 transmission to a substantial level, prompted Groveton Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, to ask members and attenders to begin wearing a mask indoors again.
“The rapidly evolving COVID situation in our country and community requires that we make adjustments to address changes. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated as we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves,” said a statement from the church’s COVID Response Team.
Assessing indoor gatherings
Hawaii’s Department of Health has reported clusters linked to places of worship in all four main counties over the past month. HDH reports say a combination of unvaccinated people, lack of indoor mask-wearing and lengthy socializing with food and drink are primarily to blame for the spread in churches, restaurants and other social gathering places.
While Hawaii Gov. David Ige has imposed restrictions on the number of people who can occupy social establishments and reimposed social distancing requirements to try to slow the spread, churches are exempt from the new guidelines. The governor has urged cities and counties to impose restrictions on places of worship, but an evaluation by the Honolulu Star Advertiser found that only on Kauai are churches subject to a 75% capacity limit.
Kipi Higa, senior pastor of New Hope Kahului on Maui, said he was glad the governor made an exception for houses of worship.
“If people want to gather together masked or unmasked, they’re free to do so. If they want to sit right next to each other or social distance, they’re free to do so,” Higa told the Star Advertiser.
In Georgia, Jeremy Shoulta, pastor of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, told the Gainesville Times that as of Aug. 1, ministers, nursery and child care staff started wearing face coverings when large numbers of people were inside. For others, masks are encouraged but not required.
Ben Garrison, campus pastor of Christ Place Church North, also in Gainesville, said his church also is encouraging masking but not requiring it. He said conflicting opinions on masking, vaccines and other topics present challenges, but church leaders continue to remind people that “we can still love each other and serve each other even if we see different views.”
At First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama, leaders are asking all members to wear a mask but are requiring children ages 2–11 to wear one since they can’t be vaccinated. Children’s teachers and workers also will be required to wear them.
FBC Huntsville Pastor Travis Collins told local media outlets two of his grandsons, ages two and four, recently tested positive for COVID-19, and the church is encouraging people to “be responsible.”
‘As long as we have to’
“I don’t know how long this is going to last, but we’ll distance and we’ll mask and we’ll encourage vaccinations frankly, as long as we have to,” Collins said.
The new CDC guidelines come as school begins in many states, and more children than ever are being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19.
Louisiana children’s hospitals currently are filled to capacity with COVID-19 patients, according to Mark Klein, physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans and a professor of pediatrics at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center and Tulane University.
“I am as worried about our children today as I have ever been,” Klein said. “This virus, the Delta variant of COVID, is every infectious disease specialist’s and epidemiologist’s worst nightmare.”
Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham reported that “as of Aug. 12, 2021, we are treating 22 COVID-positive inpatients, five of whom are on ventilators. For comparison, 13 was our highest COVID census in January 2021 at the height of the last surge. This marked increase is due to the community spread of the Delta variant that is impacting younger people, including children.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, since Aug. 5 nearly 100,000 infections in children have been reported, representing 15% of total reported cases in that period. Child cases have steadily increased since the beginning of July, AAP reported.
Affecting children, young adults
And it’s not just children’s hospitals seeing an uptick in admissions and ICU patients. Hospitals in several states are filling rapidly with COVID-19 patients.
CNN reported Aug. 13 that hospitals in eight states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and Texas — are struggling to keep up with the surge caused by the Delta variant.
“Florida and Texas alone have accounted for nearly 40% of new hospitalizations across the country,” said Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, in an Aug. 12 briefing.
In Mississippi, hospitals are full and University of Mississippi Medical Center vice chancellor LouAnn Woodward on Aug. 9 said there were no ICU beds available in the state. More than 370 were reported in intensive care in Mississippi that day.
The Mississippi State Department of Health then issued updated recommendations urging state residents 65 or older and those with chronic medical conditions to “avoid all indoor mass gatherings, even if you have been vaccinated.”
In Massachusetts, the congregation of First Baptist Church in Worchester has continued to meet outdoors with no masks required for the vaccinated. So far the response has been positive, Pastor Brent Newberry told Baptist News Global.
“We don’t want to lose a congregant to this virus,” Newberry said. “I don’t want to let up now, and I don’t think anyone is making a push for that. Everyone seems quite fine to bring a mask and put it on if it means we can see each other.”
But Newberry added that having to continually weigh the options is one of the more challenging aspects of the pandemic, especially given the ongoing resurgence of cases nationally.
Flexible and adaptable
“I always convey to my congregation that there are two certainties: the situation will continue to change, and we will keep adapting; and we will be flexible and supportive throughout the process.”
That need to be adaptable is what Huntsville’s Travis Collins prioritizes as well.
For his part, he is urging people of faith to educate themselves and get vaccinated. But he knows the church’s new guidelines, which include the requirement that all musicians who participate in the annual Living Christmas Tree presentation be vaccinated, may cause conflict.
Still, he emphasized that his priority is to protect the vulnerable in his congregation.
“We don’t know where this is going,” he told local news outlet CBS42. “We’re trying to be responsible now and keep up with the science because we do believe that science is our best guide.”