California will allow churches and places of worship to reopen at 25% capacity, with required temperature checks

California

California on Monday allowed places of worship to reopen for religious services amid the coronavirus pandemic — but they will look very different.

Churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship that reopen must limit attendance to 25% capacity or a maximum of 100 visitors, whichever is lower, for the first 21 days after their counties allow religious services and ceremonies, according to the California Department of Public Health’s new guidance.

After that period, state and local health officials “will review and assess the impact of these imposed limits on public health and provide further direction as part of a phased-in restoration of activities in places of worship.”

Congregants should be screened for high temperatures and other COVID-19 symptoms upon arrival, and they should be asked to use hand sanitizer and wear face coverings, the health department said.

Religious institutions were also asked to “strongly consider” discontinuing singing and group recitations since they can increase likelihood of people spreading respiratory droplets. But if they can’t be avoided, churches and other settings should limit the number of those reciting or singing, and space people more than 6 feet apart, according to the new guidance.

And in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, the state also recommended that the religious institutions start offering communion in the hand instead of on the tongue, discontinue kissing of ritual objects and avoid the use of a common cup.

Though the state allowed all religious services Monday, places of worship can continue to stay closed.

“This guidance does not obligate places of worship to resume in-person activity,” the state’s guidance reads. “Further, it is strongly recommended that places of worship continue to facilitate remote services and other related activities for those who are vulnerable to COVID19 including older adults and those with co-morbidities.”

The new guidelines come after months of mounting pressure to reopen churches for in-person services and days after President Donald Trump said churches and other houses of worship are “essential,” and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen.

Gov. Gavin Newsom had banned in-person church services in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus and was met with protest and challenges to the order in court, with many claiming the order violates resident’s constitutional rights. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Newsom’s ban in a split ruling last week.

The governor announced last Friday that the guidelines will be coming out Monday so that churches can reopen “in a safe and responsible manner.”

The state’s new guidelines include rules on employee and volunteer training, cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and physical distancing, among other safety precautions. But officials warned that the risk of seeing coronavirus outbreaks is still high.

Two church services that were held in defiance of state orders in Mendocino and Butte counties have been sources of coronavirus outbreaks.

“Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations,” the health department warned. “In particular, activities such as singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.”

Here are some of the guidelines religious institutions and their visitors need to know:

Physical distancing guidelines:

  • Face coverings are “strongly recommended” at all times for visitors and staff, especially when physical distance of at least 6 feet is not possible.
  • Places of worship should continue providing services through alternative methods like live streaming services online or holding drive-in services when possible, the health department said.
  • It’s also best to hold meetings and services outside whenever possible and people shouldn’t congregate in lobbies upon arrival.
  • To make sure people keep at least 6 feet apart, institutions should consider limiting and reconfiguring seating, installing partitions and putting markings on the floor to direct visitors. Houses of worship can consider dedicating staff or ushers to help maintain physical distancing and move people in an orderly way.
  • Members of the same household can still sit together but at least 6 feet away from others.
  • The institutions were also asked to shorten services as much as possible and close the buildings for visitation outside scheduled services and meetings.
  • The health agency recommended using a reservation system to limit the number of visitors attending facilities at a time and encouraging people to meet with the same group, particularly for frequent services.
  • Visitors and staff should be encouraged to leave if they don’t feel well or if they live with someone showing COVID-19 symptoms, officials said.
  • Common areas like break rooms and kitchenettes should be closed and institutions should consider installing barriers between seating.
  • In situations where there’s water splashing, like during baptisms, participants should protect their face with face shields or protective glasses and masks.
  •  And when washing is necessary for a religious practice, like during Muslims wudu, it should be performed at home before going to prayer at the facility.
  • Hugs, handshakes and other greetings should be discouraged.
  • Parking lots should be reconfigured to limit congregation points.

Cleaning and disinfecting protocols:

  • “High traffic areas” have to be thoroughly cleaned. That includes chapels, lobbies, halls, meeting rooms, offices, libraries and study areas, stairways, stairwells, handrails and elevator controls.
  • Surfaces like pulpits and podiums, donation boxes or plates, altars, pews, seating areas, door knobs, toilets and hand washing facilities must be disinfected frequently (with EPA-recommended products and staff trained on safe use). Microphones, stands, instruments and other items on pulpits and podiums should also be disinfected between each use. 
  • Sharing items like prayer books, cushions and prayer rugs should be discouraged whenever possible. The department advises the use of digital copies of religious text.
  • If there are items that have to be shared, they should be disinfected between every use.
  • The institutions were also asked to discontinue passing offering plates and similar items that move between people. The health department suggests using alternative options like secure drop boxes or digital systems.
  • As with all workplaces that reopen statewide, the institutions will have to also establish frequent cleanings and disinfections of personal work areas, with staff given time to clean up during their regular shifts.
  • The institutions should consider disposable or washable seat covers that can be changed between visitors
  • Visitors should be asked to bring their own storage bags for personal garments and shoes.
  • Hand sanitizer dispensers — touchless if possible — should be installed at entrances and areas like meeting rooms, lobbies and elevator landings
  • In situations where people are clustered together, institutions should be opening doors and windows, and operating ventilation systems. (CDPH recommended considering making modifications like installing portable high-efficiency air cleaners or upgrading the building’s air filters.)
  • Employers should provide and ensure workers and volunteers use protective equipment like gloves and masks.

All religious institutions are responsible for posting signage about the new public safety rules and making sure congregants and staff know about them. They also have to make sure all staff and volunteers are trained in COVID-19 prevention policies.

For funerals and wakes, the health department recommended that institutions reduce visitor capacity and stagger visitation times if possible, remind visitors and staff to keep at least 6 feet apart and follow the state’s cleaning and disinfection measures. Institutions have to comply with local guidance on gathering sizes and funerals for those who have succumbed to COVID-19.

And when washing or shrouding bodies of those who have died from COVID-19, religious institutions were asked to consider modifying religious or cultural practices to reduce exposure to the virus as much as possible. Those participating should wear disposable gloves and other protective equipment like face shields.

For drive-in services, car windows and doors need to stay closed if the vehicles can’t park 6 feet apart.

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