Many churches haven't been able to meet as full congregations in person since March. As the pandemic continues, many in the Chapel Hill area have had to adapt to maintain the personal relationships in a virtual setting.
Some, like the University United Methodist Church on Franklin Street, have transitioned to virtual service.
Rev. Creighton Alexander, the executive pastor of outreach and operations for University United Methodist Church, said the church has embraced the virtual movement out of a sense of responsibility to the community.
“We want to create a unified presence within the town of Chapel Hill,” he said. “Sunday attendance is up in many areas of the church. I think people are just looking to create relationships, even if it is virtual.”
Unlike other businesses and organizations, worship services in North Carolina are exempt from Gov. Roy Cooper's limit of 10 people for mass gatherings indoors and 25 for outdoor gatherings. This has allowed religious organizations to have more choices in how they hold their worship services.
Although Alexander said University United Methodist Church may consider holding outdoor services as the weather cools, he said there is still the issue of sanitization.
“The one thing people don’t think about is bathrooms,” Alexander said.
With a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina, the Orange County Health Department has issued a reminder of safety tips for religious organizations about how to safely hold outdoor services.
In order to remind the public of important safety information, the Orange County Health Department published a video on Aug. 19 emphasizing COVID-19 safety plans for churches and other religious organizations. Kristin Prelipp, communications manager for OCHD, said the guidelines can be difficult to meet.
“The guidelines are meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, but they are also fairly complicated,” Prelipp said. “The videos were an effort to try to make this information accessible to everyone.”
For the many congregations that have chosen to hold outdoor services, the OCHD encourages the requirement of physical distancing and masks for attendees as well as strict sanitization practices, according to the video. Furthermore, the video highlights a CDC recommendation that for outdoor services, 12 people can safely fit in every 1,000 square feet of space.
Chapel Hill Bible Church is one example of a religious organization that has adapted to the pandemic by hosting a Sunday morning outdoor worship service. According to the church’s website, both its outdoor and indoor services will be abiding by civic guidelines, including 6-foot physical distancing between households and the required use of masks when indoors and when near one another outdoors.
Mark Hampton, one of the church’s ministers, said adapting to the guidelines has required quick learning.
“It’s like learning to juggle when you’ve never juggled before,” he said. “We have a team of individuals that monitors all of the Orange County cases and stays updated on the recommended safety guidelines.”
The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, which oversees 111 congregations and 10 campus ministries in the state, issued its own COVID-19 requirements. The standards said wearing masks is a requirement for all worshippers, service participants, musicians and camera/audio operators for both indoor and outdoor worship gatherings.
Rev. Vincent J. Kopp, an Episcopal priest and professor emeritus at the UNC School of Medicine, said he's seen some creative solutions take shape in order for churches to continue public worship.
“Zoom worship is but one,” he said. “Outdoor worship and sacramental practices following science-driven guidelines is another.”
Although not every church and religious organization has decided to hold outdoor gatherings, Prelipp said those that have are largely making an effort to follow CDC guidelines as well as safety tips published by the Orange County Health Department.
“We have been very heartened by the amount of churches and faith communities that have reached out for guidance,” Prelipp said. “This shows that they understand what the pandemic is and they want to do their very best to keep their community members safe.”
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