- The Washington Times
Sunday, May 17, 2020

As coronavirus restrictions are eased in Maryland and Virginia, many church-goers will be returning to their pews for the first time in about two months to participate in corporate prayer and worship — but with fewer people, less singing and masks covering their noses and mouths.

“There’s a real longing for the sacraments, and we are very conscious of that, in wanting to answer that need as soon as we can,” said Mary Ellen Russell, director of community affairs for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “Obviously, it is a real priority that we take care of everybody’s safety and protect their health.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday initiated phase one of their plans to gradually reopen their states, which they had shut down in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Under phase one, houses of worship can reopen if they limit attendance to 50% of the building’s capacity and follow several safety guidelines such as wearing face masks and maintaining six feet of separation between people.

Some said they would reopen this weekend, but many others said they were preparing to open later this month.

The Diocese of Richmond, which represents about 150 Catholic churches, said many of its parishes would offer services this weekend, while the Archdiocese of Baltimore said its nearly 150 churches will begin holding services on May 30.

The reopening of houses of worship and businesses must occur in accordance with local stay-at-home orders, state and local officials said last week. All of the greater Washington area remains under stay-at-home orders due to high concentrations of COVID-19 cases.

Baltimore County opted for a limited reopening that did not include churches this weekend. The city of Baltimore remains under a stay-at-home order, as do the city of Richmond and Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

However, one prominent Baltimore pastor prepared to conduct two services for 250 people on Sunday in defiance of Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s stay-at-home order.

“I don’t know what the mayor’s trying to do,” said the Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Northeast Baltimore. “He wants to have a knock-down about First Amendment rights? He’s the mayor, not the pastor of churches in the city.”

Mr. Gwynn told The Baltimore Sun that congregants would follow social distancing guidelines and the 500-seat church would be at half capacity.

His decision contrasts with that of most houses of worship in the area, which decided to remain closed, including megachurches Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore and Grace Christian Fellowship in Timonium. Both were offering live-streamed services.

In Virginia, Deborah Cox, communications director of the Diocese of Richmond, said that church leaders “recognize there are many in the parish communities who are eager to come back to Mass That’s why we are trying to encourage our parishes to still offer live streaming.”

Bethany Ufema, executive creative director for Lifepoint Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, said her congregations won’t be reopening for in-person services and when they do, they will ask congregants to RSVP to help maintain appropriate crowd sizes.

Ms. Ufema said Lifepoint Church, which has six congregations across Virginia, might not hold in-person services until after Mr. Northam implements phase two of his reopening plan.

“We just felt that we couldn’t safely reopen starting this Sunday,” Ms. Ufema said, adding that they are continuing with online prayer for now. “There’s a lot for us to figure out to make it safe for our congregation.”

Meanwhile, the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church offered drive-in services this weekend for some members, while a few others aim to hold services for groups of fewer than 25 people beginning May 24, according to newspaper reports.

Pastors won’t wear masks because there is sufficient distance between the altar and the congregation, but everyone who plans to attend, with few exceptions, must wear a mask, officials said.

Singing will be limited, reminders about social distancing will be posted, there will be longer periods between services to allow for cleaning, and churches will minimize touch points by leaving doors open, not taking up collection or handing out bulletins. Some churches will limit attendance to 30% capacity.

When asked if parishes will turn people away who are not dawning face coverings, Ms Cox said: “I guess it’s better to answer that question next weekend.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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