Hundreds of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints streamed through the doors of Salt Lake City International Airport on Sunday and were greeted by a large group of family and friends, marking an atypical detour in their religious service for the Utah-based faith.
The global outbreak of the novel coronavirus has prompted the church to adapt its foundational proselytizing program, shuttering Missionary Training Centers worldwide and scrambling to return young men and women to their native countries.
Late Sunday, the church announced that all missionaries who remained at its 10 MTCs — which already had stopped accepting new arrivals, including the flagship campus in Provo — “are in the process of traveling to their missions or returning home to self-isolate.”
“All impacted missionaries and their families are receiving information regarding travel dates and other logistics,” spokesman Daniel Woodruff said in a news release, “including details of their new assignments if they were originally planning to serve outside their home country.”
These shake-ups to the proselytizing program are affecting tens of thousands of missionaries around the globe.
Another church spokesman, Doug Andersen, said that more than 1,600 missionaries returned to Utah on Sunday from the Philippines on five chartered flights.
The returning missionaries are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days, Andersen said, after which many will be reassigned to temporary service areas while others will be released from missionary service.
“All missionaries who are not native to the Philippines," he said, “are being moved out of that country.”
“Substantial numbers” of other missionaries will be returning home in coming weeks as well.
In a later news release Sunday, the church explained that they, too, will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days, “regardless of where they traveled from.”
“This is an important precaution in accordance with guidelines from the World Health Organization and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the release said, “even though many of these missionaries have already been self-isolating or come from areas where the virus is not as prevalent.”
The young men and women who arrived at Salt Lake City’s airport Sunday were greeted by crowds of family and friends at the short-term parking garage. The onlookers jockeyed for position while also trying to maintain safe distances from one another in response to social-distancing recommendations meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. They cheered for each missionary who came out.
After the large gathering at Salt Lake City’s airport, the church emphasized that “parents or guardians should go to the airport alone to meet a returning missionary and practice safe social distancing while there. That way, the missionary is able to properly begin self-isolation.”
And when the young proselytizers arrive at home, they have been instructed to stay there and limit contact with others.
“They are encouraged to stay in a well-ventilated room,” the church said, “preferably alone. If that isn’t possible, the missionary should stay 6 feet away from others in the room.”
Gov. Gary Herbert weighed in late Sunday on Twitter to urge family members to avoid re-creating such a large group.
“As missionaries return home due to the spread of COVID-19 across the globe, they should not be met by big groups of family or friends. Large welcome parties are dangerous and could greatly increase the spread of coronavirus in our state,” the governor said. “Parents, please go to the airport alone to pick up your returning missionaries, and help them strictly follow all self-isolation procedures for their first 14 days at home.”
In addition to the changes to its missionary program, the church has suspended weekly religious services and canceled public attendance at its General Conference, a twice-annual gathering that members now will view exclusively online or on television.
The global faith of 16.3 million also has shut down more than half its temples, where faithful members take part in their religion’s most sacred rites. The Bountiful Temple has become the first in Utah to close. The remaining temples are open by appointment only — and only for small groups.