Utah churches can assemble again — and some will do so — but social distancing will be a must

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The state has updated its guidelines for Utah’s churches and places of worship as COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease — if family groups physically distance themselves during services.

“Churches can resume operation,” Maj. Gen. Jeff Burton, the temporary head of the Utah Department of Health (UDOH), said in Wednesday’s regular media briefing. “However, the one nonnegotiable stipulation is the 6-foot social distancing required by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].”

Some Catholic churches and at least one Islamic mosque plan to reinstate services this week — albeit under those, and additional, strict protocols. The state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and other religious groups are waiting.

Given the distancing rules, Burton said, church leaders may have to map the seating to ensure family groups stay at least 6 feet apart.

“It may be that a small church has to have three Sunday services instead of one,” Burton said. “But if they keep that distancing between family groups, and they can maintain those guidelines, they can open.”

Burton said the update was necessary because of confusion over Gov. Gary Herbert’s easing of restrictions of mass gatherings — which now allow groups of up to 20 people. That number, Burton said, referred to family gatherings, not churches.

UDOH reported Wednesday two more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 58.

The two new deaths were both women in Salt Lake County who had underlying health conditions and were residents of long-term care facilities. One was older than 85, the other was under 60. No other details were released.

Utah now has 5,595 cases of COVID-19, an increase of 146 cases over Tuesday’s tally. That’s a daily rate increase of 2.7% from the day before. Eight more people have been hospitalized, bringing the total to 464.

Wednesday’s report says 4,287 people have been tested for COVID-19 since Tuesday’s report, for a statewide total of 131,002. UDOH reports that 4.3% of those tests came back positive.

Churches are split

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, which oversees Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics, authorized its pastors and administrators to begin public celebration this week of the Eucharist, according to a memo from Monsignor Colin Bircumshaw, vicar general.

But any gatherings for Mass must abide by rigid standards:

• Only 20 people are allowed in the church at once.

• Congregants must be wearing masks and remain 6 feet apart.

• No shaking of hands during the Sign of the Peace.

• Communion will be brought to the faithful in their seats to better facilitate social distancing.

• Choirs are discouraged because the close proximity of the members could increase the risk of spreading the disease.

• Collection baskets will not be passed from person to person, but rather gathered with long-handled baskets.

• After every liturgy, the pews and seats that had been occupied must be sanitized.

On the other hand, Bishop Scott Hayashi of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah doesn’t expect to reconvene congregations before month’s end.

“I had hoped that, by May, the COVID-19 virus would have reached its peak and started declining across our diocese,” Hayashi wrote in a pastoral letter to parishioners. “Unfortunately, this is not the case. Nor can we be certain that we can avoid another spike in cases by relaxing our restrictions. Therefore, the present pattern of providing worship virtually shall continue.”

The move to get back together, the bishop said Wednesday, “is premature.”

The Rev. Steve Aeschbacher of the First Presbyterian Church also believes it is not yet time to hold services at his downtown Salt Lake City church.

Guidance from the state “isn’t clear,” he said. “It would be a combination of fewer than 20 people you don’t live with, staying 6 feet apart. It sounds like it's maybe not the time.”

The historic church wants “to be careful and not put anyone at risk,” Aeschbacher said, “as we move toward more normal interactions.”

‘Good news’

The Rev. Gregory Johnson, who directs Standing Together, a consortium of evangelical churches in Utah, said many of his fellow pastors are ready to bring back their congregations.

“I am not sure they will be ready to jump by this weekend,” Johnson said, “but will, for sure, next week. They will have social distancing and mask wearing. Some will take temperatures at the door or ask older folks to stay home.”

This is “good news for our community,” he said.

As to Utah’s largest denomination, President Russell M. Nelson addressed Latter-day Saints worldwide about the COVID-19 pandemic in a video Wednesday, saying that church leaders “will continue to be prayerful and proceed with an abundance of caution” about when to resume religious practice and worship in meetinghouses.

“Your safety and well-being will always be our utmost concern,” Nelson said. “... Church leaders will continue to monitor information and determine how soon we may again gather in our meetinghouses and temples. I ... assure you that wonderful days are ahead.”

Rabbi Samuel Spector said Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami is assembling a task force of epidemiologists and experts as consultants.

“We will reopen once we’re sure it’s safe for our congregants to be together,” he said. “Opening up right now before the situation is contained is a gamble. We want to wait and see how it pans out for others before we put our community members at risk. We look forward to reopening once we are sure it’s safe.”

Imam Shuaib Din of the Utah Islamic Center said his Sandy mosque plans to reopen for prayers, with social distancing in place, as soon as Friday.

Burton also announced Wednesday that 120 members of the Utah National Guard will be put into action to help administer coronavirus testing around the state.

Many will be assigned to long-term care facilities to help with testing of health care workers. “They’ll be able to help us with rapid response to hot spots" as well, said Burton, who retired in November as adjutant general of the Utah National Guard.

UDOH is working with the Utah County Health Department to investigate two businesses where there have been outbreaks of COVID-19, said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist.

The businesses have not been named, Dunn said, for reasons of privacy. Because “neither of these two businesses have direct interaction with the general public,” Dunn said, the state “can maintain public health while maintaining privacy.”

The two businesses were responsible for 68 cases. In one, 48% of the employees tested positive for COVID-19.

In a statement Wednesday, 15 mayors in Utah County and three county commissioners “strongly” encouraged businesses and residents to follow health and safety guidelines to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“Businesses who fail to follow COVID-19 guidelines are putting employees, their families, and ultimately the health of the community at risk,” the Utah County officials wrote.