Gov. Charlie Baker gave the state’s houses of worship the green light to reopen Monday, but some local churches are holding off because of lingering safety concerns and will stick to holding virtual services.
Baker revealed his four-phase plan to restart the economy amid the COVID-19 crisis, allowing houses of worship to reopen immediately.
But Baker’s plan also comes with restrictions on houses of worship, including limiting attendance to 40% capacity and sanitizing buildings between services.
The Rev. Rebecca Bryan, minister for First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist Church in Newburyport, said the church has a “clear plan” to continue suspending its in-person gatherings through June 21 while still upholding its virtual worship schedule.
“That will give us time to really look at the needs of our congregation and our ability to make those changes,” Bryan said, noting that June 21 marks the end of the church’s year, which begins on Labor Day.
Normally, First Religious Society does not hold services in July or August, but Bryan said it will this year via its online platforms.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has recommended that congregations not gather again in person until May 2021. Bryan said that recommendation is nonbinding and that the church has assembled a team of staff members to roll out the reopening.
Bryan said she feels that even if the church only filled 40% of the sanctuary’s 700-person capacity, it would still not be safe for members.
Looking forward, Bryan said the church will continue streaming its services, which have reached a wide audience.
“We want to continue the things that have come out of this,” she said. “People that are homebound, those people can be engaged as much as they want, which is a beautiful thing.”
The Rev. Chris Ney, pastor for Central Congregational Church in Newburyport, said the church plans to continue its online worship services “for the foreseeable future.”
Ney said the church is following the guidance of its denomination, the United Church of Christ, which has a “multiphased plan for the possibility of gathering again,” though its criteria for reopening “have not been met by our communities or by our congregation.”
“Understandably, the governor’s plan can’t get into the details of context, community by community, but our responsibility is with Greater Newburyport,” Ney said. “We’re paying close attention to guidance from state, local and denominational officials and our decisions will continue to be informed by our best understanding of what they’re telling us.”
The Rev. Shea Fitzgibbons, pastor for Hope Community Church in Newburyport, said the church has yet to solidify plans for its reopening.
At Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Kara Kniker, an elder at the church, said there is “no set date for return.”
Kniker said Old South has convened a task force to discuss reopening, which is following guidance from the Presbytery of Northern New England and the expertise of health professionals while focusing on the safety of church members.
“We have a large sanctuary with plenty of room for people to practice safe distancing, but there are other factors we’re concerned about, including the vulnerability of our members,” Kniker said, noting that normal activities such as singing could pose a danger.
“There’s a greater likelihood of spreading the virus via droplets when you’re opening your mouth forcefully when you’re close to other people,” Kniker said. “We’ll look at spacing in pews, creating guidelines that will make opening safer.”
The Rev. Joan MacPherson of Main Street Congregational Church in Amesbury has been offering virtual, distant worshiping ever since Baker’s stay-at-home advisory went into effect in March.
MacPherson said Tuesday she will follow the advice of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and does not intend to offer in-person services yet.
“The Council of Churches and our denomination are both recommending waiting,” MacPherson said. “We are listening to that and it doesn’t feel like a wise thing for our community to meet in person yet. It’s just not time.”
MacPherson said the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus have not led to just disappointing results.
“We livestream on Facebook and we have Zoom meetings on Sunday mornings,” MacPherson said. “One of our members is an elderly mother who is shut in in Michigan and she now worships with her son and a daughter-in-law through Facebook. So some cool things have happened for people in some communities.
“It’s not the same as being together, nothing is but people appreciate the fact that they can talk back and forth and it still allows people to connect,” she added. “They can also react and be part of things and they can also have a chance to connect with people from a distance.”
The Rev. Ron St. Pierre, the temporary administrator for Holy Family Parish in Amesbury and Star of the Sea Parish in Salisbury, said both congregations are expected to meet in the Holy Family Parish lower church next weekend.
“Next weekend is the feast of Pentecost,” St. Pierre said. “So that is when we are looking to open. The upstairs church is gorgeous and can seat 900 people but the lower church does not have benches so we can use individual chairs where we can space people six feet apart.”