Is church the most dangerous place to be during the pandemic?

By | May 8, 2020


For many, even the unchurched. the word brings to mind comforting, familiar images. Images of Christmases and Easter long gone, glorious colors swirling through stained glass windows, playing out against reassuringly solid walls. Familiar sounds, scents, intermixed with friendly, welcoming faces.

But is that image realistic during the pandemic? Or might the comfort many find in church be a dangerous siren’s song, luring members into danger? 

Some experts think the latter may be accurate.

In a recent article, Churches Could be the Deadliest Places in the COVID-19 Pandemic, online publication Infection Control Today raises that possibility.

“This virus has made a church service one of the most deadliest places to be in. The combination of singing in close quarters and decreased ventilation is nothing short of a petri dish (or cell plate) for viral growth. 

“Observed infection rates can be astronomical. In Washington State, a choir practice of 60 individuals who practiced social distancing resulted in 45 infections, 3 hospitalizations and 2 deaths.1

”One may ask: Why am I calling out churches? The answer is asymptomatic spread and aerosolization of the virus from singing,” said author Kevin Kavanagh, M.D.

Researchers at M.I.T. raise similar concerns. In a recent study, computer-generated models show that coughs can spread respiratory droplets 16 feet, while sneezes may travel 26 feet or more. However, it is unclear at what distance droplets remain infectious.

Others cite the case of Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in Washington State. There, choir members were careful to maintain social distancing, avoid hugging or other direct contact, and to use hand sanitizer. Yet despite these measures, two weeks later dozens of choir members were infected and two dead. Thus, while not a scientific study, researchers point to this case as evidence that signing is dangerous.

Still others, including a report from the World Economic Forum, note that lack of ventilation may cause micro-droplets of respiratory secretions to linger in the air, and in some cases to build up, possibly resulting in increased risk of viral transmission.

Of course, factoring into this is the risky demographics facing most mainline churches. With The Episcopal Church and other major denominations aging faster than the population as a whole, many parishes are made up in large measure of individuals aged 65 and over—thus occupying the most risky cohorts for death due to COVID-19 infection.

Other risks

Complicating things are the mental health implications of isolation. As social beings, we need other human beings. Yet even with the partial lifting of state lockdowns, many will remain isolated, either due to the risk of infection, the loss of family members and friends, reduced financial resources, or unemployment.

Moreover, change is never easy. With major retailers lurching towards bankruptcy, seismic shifts in the travel industry, devasting levels of unemployment, and increasing evidence of surging systemic bigotry, many of the lynchpins that have stabilized society across the years seem missing, irrelevant.

Is church safe amidst the pandemic? I submit the answer is no—at least, not as traditionally configured. Indeed, the welcoming nature of many Episcopal Churches, in which children, the elderly, the homeless, and others may all show up for worship in the same space, makes for a profoundly risky paradigm. 

Looking forward

Going forward, churches will have to continue to offer virtual services, at least for the forseeable future. In-person services likely will require social distancing, lack of in-person singing, and likely efforts to separate children (who may serve as unwitting carriers) from the elderly and others at risk. Indeed, I suspect some churches will choose, like many grocery stores, to reserve times for the elderly and at-risk. Doubtless, some will rail at becoming part of services segregated by age and risk, but it may well be that this is the only viable outcome short of live-streaming.

Liturgically, it is difficult to envision a common chalice at Episcopal services any time soon. Similarly, the touchy-feely Peace that one encounters at some parishes is probably already consigned to the dustbin of history. 

The good news is that churches will finally have to deal with the fact that young people are in cyber. Streaming services is here to stay, along with the democratization that the web brings. Gone are the days when priests can bask in the reflected glory of clericalism, operating as little mini-monarchs. 

At the same time, some of the measures churches have taken to protect Zoomed services, like requiring a password, likely won’t survive. Indeed, it’s very hand to get guests to attend a virtual service if they have to lobby a parish administrator for a password—they’ll simply drop in on the service that doesn’t require this level of prior interaction.

But no matter how things play out, COVID-19 and the risks of corporate worship will bring lasting churches to Episcopal Churches, as well as those of every other denomination and faith tradition.

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