Churches respond to new mask guidance: Here’s what to expect

Coronavirus

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Catholic Diocese of Richmond and Episcopal Diocese of Virginia have issued new guidance in response to updated health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

Despite the CDC’s most recent changes advising fully vaccinated individuals in areas of substantial or high community transmission of COVID-19 to wear a mask in public indoor settings, neither Bishop Barry C. Knestout of the Catholic Diocese nor Bishop Susan E. Goff of the Episcopal Diocese are requiring masks in places of worship.

However, on July 27, The Rt. Rev. Goff issued a COVID-19 update, urging individual churches to require masks, regardless of vaccination status.

“Because our Christian faith trains and inspires us to care for the most vulnerable, especially the little children who cannot yet be vaccinated, I urge you to look at the transmission rate tracker to determine the rate in your city or county,” the update said. “If that rate is substantial or high zone, require masking for all persons, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, during worship, education, formation, outreach, fellowship and any other indoor group gathering.”

The historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Grace Street in downtown Richmond is one such church where the face covering requirement was never lifted, according to Rev. Dr. Charlie Dupree, who serves as the rector there.

“We kept the masking requirement, just because we felt that was the safe thing to do,” he said. “We have people in our congregation who are among a very vulnerable demographic, so we’ve kept the masking protocol throughout, and I’m glad we did because the Delta variant has presented yet another ripple in this.”

Even after restrictions on in-person gatherings were lifted, churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia were advised against the immediate resumption of in-person worship. On Easter Sunday in 2021, the guidance changed.

“We were allowed to worship in person, with physical distancing in place, which also required having to RSVP for services and special ways of distributing Communion so that it was contactless, and we could not sing,” Dupree said.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church mask guidance
(Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

Over the past several weeks, the Bishop Goff has lifted some restrictions, including allowing singing. But churches are still not allowed to use the common cup for Communion.

With mounting concerns surrounding the Delta variant, Dupree said that some mitigation efforts are returning to St. Paul’s.

“Beginning this Sunday, we’re going to ask people to space themselves more out in the church, continuing to mask, and beginning to put some limits on in-person meetings, as well,” Dupree said. “We want to be good stewards of our congregation and make sure people don’t put themselves in harm’s way.”

Advanced cleaning measures are also in place, with masks available for parishioners at the front door of the church and hand sanitizer available on either side before walking up the rows of pews.

“Ever since the initial shutdown, we put cleaning protocols into place,” Dupree said. “Our restrooms, our pews, any kind of surface where we feel like people are in contact, even though the science doesn’t really suggest as much that touching is as big of a deal, we’re still treating it like a big deal, just to be responsible.”

Moving forward, Dupree said that St. Paul’s is continuing to follow the science and take guidance from Bishop Goff, making every effort to protect the community.

“We’re trying to be responsive and not reactive,” Dupree said. “We know a lot more now than we did a year ago, so we feel like we’re better able to manage the situations that are in front of us now.”

He said that St. Paul’s remains open, trying to be an open space for prayer and stillness.

“So much of who we are and so much of our theology is based on physically being together, and when we’re not together, we’re not able to share each other’s joys and sorrows the way that we are called to do as a Christian community,” he said. “We are still here. We want to be a good neighbor to our downtown community.”

On July 28, new COVID-19 guidance was also issued from the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. With capacity and masking requirements having been lifted at the government level, Bishop Knestout urged parishioners to return to full, in-person participation in the Eucharist.

According to the most recent guide from the diocese, fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear a mask. However, anyone unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, age 5 and older, should wear a face covering when present for any Mass or liturgical celebration.

“No one should supply proof or inquire into the vaccination status of a parishioner,” the notice said.

The following liturgical aspects that were suspended or modified have since been restored:

  • Choirs and congregations may resume singing
  • At the discretion of the pastor, parish baptismal and holy water fonts may be reintroduced
  • Worship aids and bulletins may resume
  • Collection baskets may return
  • Procession of the offertory and gifts may resume

Although the July 28 guide did not detail requirements for sanitizing and cleaning between Masses, it did state that parishes are encouraged to clean the church building and pews similar to pre-COVID-19 protocols.

Similar to restrictions issued by Bishop Goff, the most recent guidance from the Catholic Diocese of Richmond stated that Communion from the cup is only available to the priest.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and its parishes sought to balance reasonable precautions to protect the health of all, while continuing to provide access to Mass and the sacraments, and minister to the spiritual needs of the faithful,” the guide said. “While specific guidance has been given regarding certain expectations, pastors are being given discretion for implementation for the various needs of a parish community on the local level.”

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