Wear masks and get the vaccine, say top LDS leaders, even as more wards return to face coverings

“We can win this war,” says First Presidency, “if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.”

Amid a surge in coronavirus variants, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a strong call Thursday to its members to wear masks “in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible” and to “be vaccinated.”

“We find ourselves fighting a war against the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants,” the governing First Presidency wrote to everyone in the 16.6 million-member church. “...We want to do all we can to limit the spread of these viruses. We know that protection from the diseases they cause can only be achieved by immunizing a very high percentage of the population.”

At the same time, via email, they instituted a mask mandate for all church employees, service missionaries, and volunteers “whenever indoors and social distancing is not possible, regardless of vaccination status.” They also are inviting the workers to report whether they have been inoculated.

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Even before Thursday’s statement from church headquarters, masks were back at many Latter-day Saint congregations across the nation and the world, and vaccinations among church members were up. But none of it was because of a mandate from those considered “prophets, seers and revelators.”

From the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic, top Latter-day Saint leaders did everything they felt they could do to battle the pandemic.

They suspended weekly worship services in March 2020 and closed all 160-plus temples. They urged members to put on masks and social distance. They switched to all-virtual General Conferences, maintaining physical distance and donning masks except when speaking at the microphone. In written guidelines, on social media and from the pulpit, they have encouraged members to be vaccinated against COVID-19, stating Thursday that the shots “have proven to be both safe and effective.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The governing First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks, left, Russell M. Nelson, center and Henry B. Eyring at General Conference on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021.

Church President Russell M. Nelson, a former heart surgeon, and other apostles showed the way by releasing photographs of themselves getting their first doses.

Still, they have allowed local leaders in every region to call the shots, guided by rules set by governmental authorities and health care experts in those areas. And, though they “strongly encouraged” members to get inoculated, they left it up to individual choice.

That same approach remains in place, opening the door for continued confusion and ill will as congregational leaders make starkly opposite decisions.

And so stake (regional) presidents — from Salt Lake City to Seoul, Provo to Puerto Rico, Logan to Liberia, Baltimore to Brussels — are setting the tone and policies for the surge in the virus’s delta variant.

Sandy resident Rollin Skinner shared an email from his stake leaders before the church’s latest release, which said: “With the recent rise in COVID-19 case counts and the new [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines recommending that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks in all public gatherings, the stake has asked that, effective now, all ward members wear masks in Sunday meetings.”

Several other stakes and wards on Salt Lake County’s east side also have reinstituted mask standards.

“We were strongly encouraged to wear masks and three weeks ago asked not to sing unless we have masks on,” reports Jeni Lawrence Colarusso, a nurse in Holladay. “Also, the Zoom broadcast of sacrament meeting speakers will continue so those who are vulnerable can participate without having to come in person.”

Latter-day Saints in Mountain View, Calif., are “definitely wearing masks in church,” says September Blanchard Higham. “We’re following county guidelines. And science.”

Members are “particularly concerned about the children under 12 in our ward who are unable to be vaccinated,” she says. “We are holding Primary [the church’s children’s program] outdoors, or in rooms that have large, open windows. People in the ward are really stepping up and are concerned about one another’s safety. We care about each other and so we mask up.”

Even at the stake’s camp for teenage girls in the Sierras, she says, “we are wearing masks here in any situation where we are very close together or singing. The kids just roll with it. They’re flexible and resilient.”

Those opposed?

On the other hand, some Latter-day Saint leaders were waiting to hear from government officials before returning to mask-wearing, while others outright opposed any such move.

“My bishop had COVID and when I gave condolences, he passed it off as not a big deal,” says Josh Alder of Eugene, Ore. “Another counselor waxed poetic about going out to eat inside a restaurant the same day restrictions were lifted as though it were the greatest thing to happen all year.”

Alder watched every sacrament meeting online from home, he says, and “had to listen to countless people complain about wearing masks or revel in the vacations they took to states (like Utah) where congregations could meet unmasked and do things like sing, etc.”

Alder lost his grandmother to COVID-19 in January, he says. “It was horrifying to watch her slowly die on FaceTime, even though she only lived about 80 miles from me. I really wish I had felt some kind of general support and solace from my ward leaders and fellow members, even acknowledgment that so many around the world had been suffering from the loss of loved ones. But I never felt that once. I still don’t.”

Sue Bergin attends her Orem ward regularly and is fully vaccinated but is immunocompromised and doesn’t feel entirely comfortable, she says. “I go fairly often anyway because the sacrament [or Communion] is meaningful to me. I would like to visit with people but almost no one but me is masked, so I slip in and out quickly. If I sit on the very back row of the cultural hall, usually very few people are nearby, and I feel safer.”

She wishes more people “would return to mask-wearing and that we would suspend singing again,” Bergin says, “but I know both of those are unlikely.”

It remains to be seen whether this latest statement from Nelson and his counselors will change behaviors in more wards and stakes.

To vaccinate or not

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church President Russell M. Nelson receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City. He is urging all members to receive the inoculation.

A new survey from Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core — which showed faith leaders can help sway their flocks to get the shots — reports that 65% of Latter-day Saints are now vaccine acceptors. That’s up 15 percentage points from a March survey.

Some 37% of Latter-day Saints reported they did or would look to their church leaders for guidance about vaccines. About 41% express at least moderate concerns about the vaccines,

Latter-day Saints (72%), white evangelical Protestants (72%) and other Protestants of color (67%) are the most likely to favor religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.

So where does that leave church-sponsored institutions like Brigham Young University?

Administrators on the Provo and Rexburg, Idaho, campuses have strongly encouraged students and employees to be vaccinated, but are not requiring it (though some professors are asking students to be inoculated to attend their classes in person). The Provo school is asking students and employees to “self-report” their vaccination status.

Church-owned Ensign College in Salt Lake City did the same.

Students at BYU-Hawaii, however, will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before they can return to class.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is not requiring singers to be vaccinated, allowing those who aren’t to take “medical leave,” according to sources in the choir who were not authorized to speak. To stay in the choir, a person has to attend 80% of the time, but if the member is an anti-vaxxer, that is now considered a legitimate medical excuse and an absence isn’t counted.

Mike Leavitt, former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, was just named the choir’s president and his previous experience may affect vaccine decisions going forward.

The Salt Lake City-based faith is encouraging, but not requiring, its missionaries to be vaccinated. In some countries, though, the shots are required to gain entry.

“Prospective missionaries who have not been vaccinated,” the General Handbook says, “will likely be limited to assignments in their home country.”

While lamenting this “unrelenting pandemic,” the First Presidency’s latest message, however, ends on a hopeful note.

“We can win this war,” it says, “if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.”