As a committee, we have found that during the last two months (since our last recommendation to Session) that we have been dealing with a moving target. This obviously refers to life in general in our homes, in Allegheny County, and in the nation as a whole. We have seen, for instance, that, as restrictions lifted as the state and county entered the Green phase, there was a significant spike in cases. Community infection numbers came down some once the governor placed restrictions on restaurants and bars, but, as of August 25, they have not dropped to what we saw during the Red and Yellow phases.
A sobering reality check means confronting honestly the fact that rates of infection have been continuing to rise and fall in unpredictable ways, and no one has a definitive timeline as to when our country will have robust testing and contact tracing to help mitigate community spread. Nor do we know when an effective vaccine will be available and the extent to which it will curb community spread.
As such, we remain unable to state a time when our sanctuary will be open for limited in-person Sunday morning worship. We stated from the beginning that we would primarily be relying on the scientific and medical communities for cues as to the appropriateness of limited in-person worship.
What we know as of August 25 is that in-person worship continues to be a super-spreader event. Singing especially puts attendees at great risk (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/us/coronavirus-churches-outbreaks.html). We do not yet have data as to the safety of in-person worship that does not include singing (https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2020/05/07/church-reopen-sing-masks-service/). We also do not have data as to an appropriate level of community spread to mitigate risk.
Relatedly, there is not definitive guidance for churches the way there now is for schools. Regarding school, the state of Pennsylvania issued metrics for in-person schooling. Their metric for in-person learning is a seven-day testing average of less than 5% positive and an average of fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 residents. (https://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2020/08/10/pa-reopen-schools-guidelines/stories/202008100089)
With these realities in mind, we suggest that Session approve the following:
Until such time as the seven-day testing average for Allegheny County is below 3% for two weeks, there will be no in-person worship. We will also continue to keep the building closed until future notice.
As we move forward, our community will have to remember two things. The first is that it will likely be several months before we sustain such a low average. The other is that, if we meet these metrics for a given week, they can (and will) change and then we will have to adapt accordingly.
Sixth will continue to focus on making our virtual presence as meaningful as possible, whether it be Sunday Worship, committee meetings, virtual potlucks, or children and youth gatherings with Jenny. While the pandemic has changed many of the ways in which we are church, they do not keep us from being a church. Very few elements of our 2020 lives are “normal.” We need to remember that sacrifices made in the interest of safety are a very real part of our faith in our community, of our lives lived as disciples of Christ, and of our faith in the future.
As a committee, we have defined the steps that must be taken to have in-person worship when the time comes. These steps include registration, answering health questionnaires, marking safe seating positions in the sanctuary, training ushers to seat worshippers in assigned seats, etc. This also means acknowledgement by all concerned that worship will be a spectator activity and not participatory in any of the ways we are accustomed to. Nothing will be spoken or sung by those worshipping. There should be no time of fellowship in the sanctuary before or after the service.
Our next steps as a committee will be creating parameters and protocols for weddings/funerals, building usage for congregants, and building usage for outside groups. We will continue to monitor the ever-changing information and guidance related to COVID-19 as well as community spread within Allegheny County.
The Reopening Task Force