Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance for faith communities

Shortly after news of the first person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in the U.S. circulated, Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky sent a letter to local churches and ministries encouraging them to take reasonable precautions. Over the year that followed, Greater Northwest Churches and ministries inhabited warranted caution, actively adapting to do no harm as the U.S. awaited vaccinations and grieved the loss of nearly 600k citizens.

In a pastoral letter on April 22, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky wrote to United Methodists across in the Greater Northwest Area, sharing her posture of hopeful caution as progress was being seen in the fight against the coronavirus. As she asked churches to “remain vigilant in their planning and decision-making processes,” Bishop Stanovsky also promised an update to the area’s COVID-19 guidelines by today, May 5.

That new guidance for local churches and ministries, titled Stepping forward safely in love and trust, is now available and goes into effect on May 17, 2021. The new framework builds upon, but replaces Reimagining Life Together. It acknowledges the continuing risk of disease, advances in science, and the increasing capacity of our local church leaders to manage the risk in their contexts.

This resource page is designed to support leaders as they make critical decisions in a situation that is quickly changing. We believe it essential that such decisions are made with the latest, fact-based information available to us.


Recent Q&A

The following answers were provided by the GNW COVID-19 Response Team in reply to questions lifted up by local church leaders. Originally appearing in their newsletter, they are provided here in reverse chronological order.

Q: What can we do about the latest COVID-19 variant, Omicron?

DECEMBER 1, 2021 – After many Americans celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday, news broke on Friday of a concerning variant of COVID-19 first identified in Botswana and South Africa. The new variant B.1.1.529, known as Omicron, has 50 mutations, with more than 30 on the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach itself to human cells. The World Health Organization designated Omicron as a variant of concern, and several countries, including the U.S., imposed new travel restrictions to slow the variant’s global spread.

Omicron

What more do we know about Omicron? Not a whole lot with any certainty. Because of its many mutations, particularly on the spike protein, there is significant concern that the virus is more transmissible. Scientists around the globe are studying the variant closely to determine this and understand how it compares to Delta.

There is also some concern that the variant might be able to evade, to some degree, the protection offered to us by vaccination or previous infection. The CDC strengthened its vaccine booster guidance on Monday, recommending that all adults over 18 receive a booster. They pointed to the emergence of Omicron and early data suggesting increased transmissibility and the “potential for immune evasion” as their rationale.

Public health experts are concerned about a repeat of our all too recent past, and we should be too. Before Delta arrived, cases were trending down across much of the U.S.; many people were done with COVID, even if it wasn’t done with us. The impact of human behavior can be significant, especially when we let our guard down too early.

While cases were declining across much of the Northwest, they were trending up nationally before the holiday. Concerns existed before the news of this new variant about the potential impact of holiday travel and behaviors on community transmission.

As we wait for more information about this variant, churches should use this moment to assess where they may have become lax or complacent in applying their COVID-related mitigation practices. Are you following your plan, and is it well suited to your current risk level?

Churches should consider passing along the CDC’s updated guidance on booster shots, especially for those members who may not consume much news. As of last week, 37.5 million Americans had received a booster out of the 130 million-plus that were eligible. Even among the most vulnerable groups, there are still those who haven’t received a booster.

Finally, suppose Omicron or another future variant does pose a direct threat to the community you serve. In that case, it is always best to know how you will make decisions responsively to changing risk. Review with your reopening team how your congregation adapted to the Delta wave. What did you do well? What could you improve, and what will you need to communicate to your congregation if future changes are warranted?

The GNW COVID-19 Response Team is monitoring this news closely, and we will provide future guidance as warranted. For now, there is no reason to panic, but please do remain vigilant.

Patrick Scriven, on behalf of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

Q: Can we safely celebrate the winter holidays in person this year?

OCTOBER 13, 2021 – On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned against a premature declaration of victory against COVID-19 even as he shared that vaccinated Americans should feel reasonably safe celebrating upcoming holidays. His words echo similar advice offered recently by CDC Rochelle Walensky and other experts as much of the US sees coronavirus cases decline.

Over the past week, several news outlets tackled the question of what we might anticipate as winter arrives and what we need to do to be adaptive to changing circumstances:

Each piece is worth reading (or listening to) for those making personal decisions about what to do to keep themselves safe, choices that can also make faith community events and activities safer too. The following points are made repeatedly in these and other articles on the current and future state of the pandemic.

  • Things are starting to get better again, but caution is still warranted. Overall, the situation in the US is improving, but some experts anticipate a winter resurgence. Low vaccination rates, changes in personal behavior (moving inside, dropping safety protocols), and the threat of a new variant are all variables on experts’ minds. While we know more about how COVID-19 spreads, reliable forecasting remains elusive.
  • Vaccination matters. Vaccination makes a quantitative difference in almost every way that matters, and the presence of unvaccinated people in an event you are participating in should impact your planning. The expected emergency use approval of a vaccine for younger children (5-to-11 year-olds) will help given time and robust adoption, as will efforts to deliver more vaccines globally.
  • This is a time to be adaptive. Whether you are considering personal travel or planning a communal event (i.e., Christmas Eve worship), it is best to have a backup plan. We are still in a season of unpredictability where rigid planning can lead to disappointment and unnecessary risk. None of us are living in a bubble. When case numbers are high in the community, even a layered mitigation strategy can fail.
  • Masks matter, but they are not all the same. Scientists researching the Alpha variant were able to show that it transmitted more efficiently as an aerosol than previous strains, and they expect that Delta is even better. A growing body of research shows that while any mask is better than none, cloth and basic surgical masks are not nearly as effective as those rated N95 or KN95, especially against a highly efficient virus.
  • Plan to use rapid testing strategically around travel and events. The prevalence of breakthrough cases during the Delta surge has led to more conversation about the availability of rapid testing. The mitigation strategy has been popular in other countries and could help reduce the disease’s asymptomatic spread. Last week, the Biden Administration announced a plan to increase the number of at-home rapid tests to 200 million per month by December. As they become available, consider how you might use them to mitigate risk for you and events you participate in.
  • Hope is on the horizon. Last week, pharmaceutical company Merck announced that they would be seeking FDA approval for the first antiviral pill intended to treat COVID-19. In clinical trials, it cut hospitalizations and death by about 50 percent, and other similar treatments are in the pipeline. Treatments like these could help to save lives and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote, “We even take pride in our problems because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Despite the challenges posed to us by the Delta variant, we are making real progress against this disease. And as people of faith, we can trust that the problems we have faced will, with God’s help, produce endurance, character, and hope.

Over these many months, our United Methodist churches have been sacrificial in adopting safety protocols for the common good. Along with similar actions of others, we have helped to bend the curve of this virus to give scientists the necessary time to study and develop treatments to save lives.

It may indeed be possible to approach the various fall and winter celebrations with more enthusiasm this year than last, but we should be very cautious about letting down our guard. As we plan how to celebrate some holidays in person again, let us remain committed to loving our neighbors as we take full advantage of all that we have learned, and the gifts science has delivered.

–Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications, PNW Conference

Q: Does our church need to abide by the new vaccine mandate issued in King County, WA (or one like it)?

On September 16, Public Health – Seattle & King County Dr. Jeff Duchin issued a new health order. The order requires proof of a coronavirus vaccination or a negative test (within 72 hours) to attend most restaurants and bars, indoor recreational venues regardless of size, and outdoor events with 500 people or more, beginning October 25. Similar requirements are in place in a small but growing number of cities across the country and might be expected in other parts of the GNW Area at some point.

In a provided FAQ, King County states that faith-based institutions “are strongly encouraged but not required to verify vaccinations.” It has long been the position of the Greater Northwest Area that its churches and ministries take seriously guidance provided by state and local public health authorities, intentionally not availing themselves of special rules offered exclusively to religious organizations. This position is an expressed commitment of Option 2 churches and ministries where it states, “[w]e will not use privileges accorded religious organizations to exempt ourselves from science-based restrictions applied to non-religious civic organizations of similar function.”

Therefore, United Methodist churches and other ministries operating in cities, counties, boroughs, or states where a vaccine mandate exists should develop and implement a plan to require proof of vaccination or negative test as required by any health order. This applies regardless of whether those ministries are in Option 1 or 2 of the “Stepping Forward Safely…” framework. Churches and other ministries may make missional exceptions from this mandate when a particular program or outreach is focused toward a vulnerable population.

To be clear, this is a specific and consistent reminder that churches and ministries should follow state and local public health guidance in addition to the same from the CDC, whichever is most cautious. We are not recommending vaccine mandates for all ministries across the GNW Area.

While vaccinations remain free and widely available, we do understand that access remains uneven in some communities. At times, some of the same communities with less access have more reasons to be hesitant. Our position, especially given the critical importance of vaccination in the public health struggle against coronavirus, is that churches and ministries can best serve their communities by partnering with public health and other civic organizations in providing more access and advocacy for vaccinations.

Q: When will it all be better? Christmas? Easter?

SEPTEMBER 22, 2021 – Over the weekend, I had a tough conversation.

During the early months of COVID, my father passed away after years of struggling with degenerative lung disease. Months later, my grandfather passed away as COVID-19 made its way through the long-term care facility where he lived. My mother lost her husband and father while dealing with a significant medical crisis of her own. When, in July, she finally decided to plan memorial services for each at the beginning of October, it was a triumph and a step forward in healing. 

Fast forward to this weekend. I have been watching numbers in my home county in Wisconsin slowly tick up for weeks and it is now the worst in the state. As I write today, the daily new case rate is 141.1 per 100k, coupled with some unfavorable statistics. One out of every four people tested for COVID-19 test positive, and only 35.1% of the population is fully vaccinated. None of these things made me feel like it would be a good idea, but I was still holding onto hope that things might suddenly get better. 

The Mayo Clinic provides public access to a tool they use to forecast COVID-19 risk up to 14 days which works in most states (Alaska seems to be an exception).* When another GNW COVID-19 Response Team member shared it a few days earlier, I left a browser tab open, hoping to explore it more closely. As I looked at its forecast for Rusk County, I was shocked to see they predicted daily new cases would rise to 257 per 100k with a high and low range of 104-556. This projection helped solidify my decision.

So, I called my mother to let her know that it was doubtful that I would make it. That wasn’t easy because I want to support my family and properly mark these passings. While I encouraged her to reconsider the timing, I was clear that this was not my decision to make.

I’m happy to report that my mom called back to say they would be rescheduling just a short time later. She also shared that my sister, who lives locally, was relieved as she had been concerned that her family might need to quarantine unpredictably as the virus runs through the school and community. While I was thankful for this outcome, I am still sad that we will need to wait longer.

I share this personal story to answer the question. Nobody has a crystal ball, and it is impossible to predict when it will all be better. Many of us started to feel positive about things in July when the data was heading in one direction. And then Delta arrived, and things got bad again quickly.

So, are we completely blind? No, I don’t think so. Thanks to the efforts of so many civil servants, we have data that can help us to see the trends and studies that continue to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Delta’s arrival was a shock, but it wasn’t a complete surprise. And we have seen, even in our relatively small region, how our actions (distancing, masking, and vaccination) and those by civil authorities have made a significant difference.

Do I think packed candlelight services will be making a comeback this December? I believe that is highly unlikely. But it may be the case that parts of the area are back to where they were in July again. Hopefully, we will have learned that this won’t yet be time to let down our guard.

Collectively and individually, there is a lot of healing that needs to take place. Praise God for the saints among us who have been busting their tails to adaptively offer opportunities for healing online and safely in-person! And may we all be given a full measure of patience for all that still needs to wait.

Patrick Scriven serves as director of communications and young people’s ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference. He is also a member of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team.

*Another reliable resource for projections (on a state but not county level) is the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Q: Can churches require their employees to get vaccinated?

Yes. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers can require vaccination and/or regular screening for COVID-19 as part of their terms of employment, subject to reasonable accommodations. No current state law in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon or Washington prohibits a church or ministry from doing so. OSHA will be issuing guidelines that will be mandatory for employers with more than 100 employees soon that churches may want to consider implementing.

Requiring vaccination for paid and volunteer staff positions can add a layer of safety for ministries and communicates confidence in the efficacy of vaccines to reduce the frequency of severe cases, especially now that one has full FDA authorization for adults over the age of 16. Still, churches should proceed with care, making sure they understand the impact it will have on staff and have a plan for fairly addressing accommodations required by law.

It is the recommendation of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team that local churches and ministries strongly consider a vaccine mandate as an expression of our faith that calls us to love our neighbors.

Review section K. Vaccinations to learn more on the EEOC website.

Q: Since winter is coming, how can we use ventilation and filters to lower the risk of COVID transmission while indoors?

SEPTEMBER 8, 2021 – During the spring and summer, many of our congregations have been worshipping outdoors. It is wonderful to worship in God’s creation, and it is so much more COVID-safe than being indoors. But fall and winter will be upon us shortly, and, in many places, outdoor worship may not be practical.

First, before moving indoors, can you tweak/add things to make outdoor worship possible for longer? Here are some ideas, but please share yours in the GNW Stepping Forward Facebook group.

  • When locally allowed, add propane heaters or fire pits so that folks can warm up, at least momentarily.
  • Add canopies, remembering that sidewalls are problematic, possibly disrupting the airflow and creating pockets of concentrated, potentially virus-laden aerosols.
  • Suggest that folks bundle up.
  • Provide disposable hand warmers.
  • Provide blankets or suggest that folks bring their own.
  • Encourage folks to bring warm beverages, being mindful of the need for physical distancing when consuming a drink. The viability of this suggestion depends on your site’s current risk level, risk tolerance and opening plans.
  • Move worship to a later time in the day when it is a bit warmer.

Once it becomes necessary to move inside, or if you already have and are wondering what you can do to increase the safety of your congregation and other groups using your space, consider these thoughts and ideas:

Read and download the rest of this advice on ventilation.

Q: What precautions should we be taking for our Christian education programs and preschools in our local church settings?

SEPTEMBER 1, 2021 – For many reasons it was a successful summer season for Camp and Retreat Ministries (CRM) of the Oregon-Idaho Conference and Pacific Northwest Conference with 10 camp and retreat sites fully operational and offering enriching experiences for everyone from 3 to 83 years old.

Oregon-Idaho CRM Executive Director Todd Bartlett counts it a success for one other reason: no cases of COVID-19 have been reported, even with overnight camps operational all summer long. A number of risk mitigation factors were put in place to make this happen, with agreement among all of the campers and non-UMC facilitated camps as well, to the safety precautions.

“We did as much outside as we possibly could,” Bartlett said.

That meant breakfast at Suttle Lake Camp in 40 degree weather or scrambling to find extra dining space at Camp Magruder when the rain started along the Oregon coast.

It also meant campers masked whenever they were inside buildings. Cabins with bunk beds were re-arranged to accommodate physical distancing. When they were outside, campers stayed with their same cohort throughout the week and physically distanced themselves when in outdoor spaces as well. All of the camps offered health screenings – including temperature checks – each morning as well, Bartlett said.

 The PNW Camps similarly had much success this season, reports CRM Executive Director Alan Rogstad. Each of the four PNW Camps offered summer camping with similar precautions to their ministry partners to the south.

Read more about the practices that made camps successful on our GNW News site.

Q: How are local churches creatively approaching safety?

AUGUST 25, 2021 – When it came time to welcome people back into the congregation at Hillview United Methodist Church in Boise, Rev. Brenda Sene had an easy way to “sell” the message of following strict COVID-19 protocols.

“We are a reconciling congregation,” Sene said. “We are here to make people feel emotionally and physically safe.”

Sene said there were some people who were hesitant to wear masks, but when the church put its guidelines into the context of welcoming everyone – including protecting unvaccinated children – it just seemed to make sense.

“Once I explained it that way, no one complained,” she said.

The message isn’t internal, either. Recently, the Oregon-Idaho Conference held a small ordination and commissioning service at Hillview UMC and ushers greeted people at the door with a reminder to keep themselves masked because the church wants to welcome everyone into its space and the only way that can be done by following safety guidelines.

Sene said greeters are advised to be gracious, but they all offer reminders – in their own way – about the importance of sharing God’s love by protecting the health and well-being of their neighbors.

Every other church pew is adorned with “faces” of people wearing masks to help with the physical distancing — and also making the congregation look a little fuller to the preacher. Children, who Sene said are an important part of the congregation, each have their own worship bag with their name on it (and guests are given ones they take home) where they can play with toys and add their own items, which helps provide an alternative way to keep kids engaged in worship and lowers possible transmission rates.
– Written by Kristen Caldwell

Q: Is it still safe to preach without a mask if you are vaccinated?

AUGUST 18, 2021 – When the CDC updated its masking guidelines in May, saying that fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in many settings, church leaders saw an opportunity. If, as the CDC guidance suggested, vaccinated people were largely safe from infection and from being contagious themselves, their vaccination status should make their participation in worship as a maskless preacher or liturgist reasonably safe.

The Delta variant is turning that thinking on its head. Early studies of COVID-19 infections in regions where the Delta variant is dominant are indicating that the vaccines may provide less protection against so-called breakthrough cases. And while these cases are often mild, as the vaccines provide a layer of protection for most, those with asymptomatic and mild cases are still quite capable of passing the virus along, even if they are unaware of their illness.

Simply put, vaccination alone isn’t enough with Delta in our communities.

One church that paused to rethink things in light of Delta was First UMC of Seattle, operating under Option 2 of the GNW’s “Stepping Forward…” framework.

“When the Delta variant started to rise, First Seattle’s lay leadership requested we take additional steps to reduce the risk for our live-streamed worship services, which began Sunday, August 15th. Our lay lectors and preachers alike must produce proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test from 24-72 hours prior, to speak without a mask,” said First UMC’s pastor Jeremy Smith. “If they don’t get the test results back in time, then they can do the same role, but wearing a mask.”

Smith noted that surgical and musical performance expectations in the Seattle area inspired these extra steps.

Rev. Katie Ladd, who serves as pastor of nearby Queen Anne UMC, shared that her church (also under Option 2) has adopted a similar practice, having faith that mitigation efforts have and will continue to make a difference.

“Every Friday, we review cases per 100k for our county. In high risk, we halt indoor singing from the soloist and use only instrumental music indoors. Speakers, we allow for two, can only unmask if vaccinated with a negative COVID-19 test in hand.”

Access to testing is likely to vary by community. Rev. Smith shared that drive-thru testing in King County was paid for by his (PNW Conference) insurance. Others have used modestly priced testing available from local labs and even companies like Amazon, which offer quick results.

“We are looking to create a pool of people to enter into group saliva testing to cut down on costs, assuming that this practice will be a long-term one and not something for the near or intermediate future,” said Rev. Ladd. “We are preparing for COVID to be endemic, and we want our practices to prepare us for this potential reality.”

– Patrick Scriven, PNW Director of Communications

Q: How are GNW churches managing the current rise in COVID-19 cases?

AUGUST 11, 2021 – Twin Falls County, Idaho, experienced rapid growth in their COVID case rate in late July…while the pastor of First UMC in Twin Falls was on vacation. Members of the reopening team and the worship leader recognized this, being well-informed about the shift in CDC guidance and additional information about singing from the GNW COVID-19 Response Team. With access to information, local statistics, and practical guidance, laity in leadership were equipped and empowered to make loving decisions on short notice, encouraging and requesting that all worshipers (regardless of vaccination status) wear masks in their indoor worship service. 

Pastor Buddy Gharring was back to lead worship the following Sunday when masks continued to be the norm. “The ability to offer a clear, straightforward, and health-conscious (science-informed) answer to the question, ‘When are we going to be able to sing indoors again?’ is a very welcome gift. I am thankful for the people who have worked so hard on this tool,” says Gharring of the recently released singing dashboard. “Singing is incredibly important to many, and this takes the guesswork out of it, providing a simple metric and great reasoning.”

At Puyallup UMC in Pierce County, Washington, sanctuary upgrades have kept the congregation worshiping online, with an anticipated return to in-person worship in September. Like many other churches across the GNW, they now have to reconsider their plans for the fall as daily case counts rise dramatically in their county.

Communication has been a priority of the church’s reopening team and pastors throughout the pandemic. Finding itself back in the very high risk category, according to CovidActNow, the church is following its plan and stepping back. In a message to members, Rev. Cara Scriven shares how the church will adjust its practices in response to higher community risk levels. “While this is discouraging and disappointing to all of us, we trust that God is with us even when we struggle,” wrote Scriven to members of Puyallup UMC.

Read her message on the Puyallup UMC website.

Other Key Resources

Good, science-based information is essential in responding to the coronavirus. 

Recent GNW COVID-19 Response Team Updates

Subscribe for updates from the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

The GNW COVID-19 Response Team is using this email list to regularly share updates and important COVID-19 related news and resources. 

Click the link below for others to subscribe. You will need to select “GNW COVID-19 Response Team Update” from the subscription list.

Protect Public Health • Slow the Spread

United Methodists in the Greater Northwest are adjusting their lives to protect the health of the people in and served by our churches. Trusting the science, we are committing to do all we can to slow the spread of the virus and keep it from overwhelming the health care systems.

Resources offered to assist faith communities in developing plans and procedures to adapt to this changing situation. 


Innovate in Worship

The COVID-19 pandemic is pushing us outside of our comfort zones in so many areas. Leaders are moving online when they can, embracing new tools to facilitate connection, nurture spiritual growth, and support the continuance of worship.


Reimagining Life Together

Guidelines for Reopening Buildings and Returning to In-Person Ministry

Linked below are resources for Reimagining Life Together. The materials, set to expire on May 17, 2021, provided guidance for local churches and ministry settings during the first year of the COVID-19 crisis.

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