Church goers across Idaho will have a chance this weekend to do something they haven’t done in a month: go to church.
Gov. Brad Little has released a step-by-step schedule for reopening Idaho, and starting Friday, churches will be able to gather if their members respect social distancing.
While some pastors have rushed to create a social distancing protocol and make masks available for their congregations, others have decided to wait, worrying that returning to church too soon could put their elderly and vulnerable members in danger.
Tim Remington, pastor of The Altar church in Coeur d’Alene and a state representative, said he sees holding a service as a constitutional issue and will hold two Sunday.
Remington was one of the last pastors to offer services, holding one after Little’s March 25 stay- home order. He held services online through April and will encourage those who are vulnerable to continue watching online for now.
He said elected leaders who don’t make an exception for religious services are committing “constitutional misconduct” and that if stores like Costco and gas stations are allowed to be open, churches should be open to the public as well.
“As a pastor and a lawmaker, I was not trying to be rebellious,” Remington said. “ I was trying to make a statement.”
Remington said ushers will help the congregation social distance and masks will be available for them. He anticipates only a few hundred of the 1,000 people in his congregation will show up in person and that social distancing will not be a problem.
He said his service would focus on the Book of Revelation and other parts of the Bible that pertain to the End Times.
According to data from the Idaho Panhandle Health District, there have been 66 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across five counties, 62 of which were in Kootenai County. There have been five hospitalizations across the Panhandle.
The state has released a guide for places of worship planning to open after Friday. Churches should direct the flow of traffic in their building, use signage to help their congregation social distance and offer protected areas for vulnerable people, or hold a separate service for vulnerable members of the congregation. The guide recommends limiting the number of people attending a service at one time and telling worshipers to refrain from physical contact.
While Remington is planning to hold church as soon as possible, other pastors, such as Candy Moon, who leads a small congregation at Coeur d’Alene’s Community of Christ, don’t have a hard date on when they will come back.
While Community of Christ Church is tentatively planning to return at the end of May, Moon said the church has a small building and it will be difficult to social distance. She said she’s also afraid she’ll unknowingly bring sickness home, where she cares for her 91-year-old mother.
“I don’t want her to get something and have me be the reason,” Moon said.
She said the church is still keeping in close contact, having services over Zoom, but waiting a month or two may be the safest option for everyone.
“Christ isn’t about the building, it’s about our hearts and who we are in the world,” she said.
But Remington isn’t the only pastor in the North Idaho area planning to return to in-person services this weekend.
Real Life Ministry’s Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene campuses will reopen on Sunday, as will Candlelight Christian Fellowship in Coeur d’Alene.
Darin Blood, executive pastor for Real Life Ministry, said in an emailed statement that Real Life, which has thousands of members, will hold four services in Post Falls and three in Coeur d’Alene this Sunday.
He said Real Life will sanitize all surfaces before and after each service, and will rearrange chairs in the auditorium so the congregation can social distance from each other. The church also will provide hand sanitizer and masks but will not offer coffee or have its cafe open as it normally does.
Blood said those who are vulnerable or sick, have been around someone sick or are not comfortable attending in person will be asked to stay home and watch online.
“While we are passionate about people being able to come together to worship, we also believe the most loving thing we can do at this time is to be responsible and only do so if we can keep people safe,” Blood said.
Pastor Paul Van Noy of Candlelight Fellowship, a church of about 1,200, said he planned for a soft opening on Sunday. The church released a survey this week to find out how many people planned to attend online and how many wanted to attend in person.
Van Noy said he considers churches as essential as the family and believes they need to reopen for the spiritual and psychological health of the community.
“We’re going really, really slow, but we know that people are hurting and need ministry,” he said.
Other churches are planning staged reopenings, such as Heart of the City Church in Coeur d’Alene.
Pastors Jonathan and Raydeane Owens said this weekend will be a test run. The church rearranged all the chairs in the sanctuary so churchgoers can social distance, and will hold a small service that will only include church leaders and their families. The church also will record a service. If parishioners are able to successfully social distance this weekend, a larger church service will be held the following Sunday, which will be limited to 200 people.
Churchgoers must register in advance, and registration will close after 200 people sign up. Raydeane Owens said she will in the future ask church goers who had already attended an in-person service to forgo attending the next week, so the entire congregation of more than 1,000 can cycle through.
“I would say the pulse is that everybody wants to come back together,” she said. “There’s a new appreciation for humanity and human contact.”
The Owenses said they don’t see a constitutional issue with Little’s orders, which are designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. They said the only reason they would take issue with the stay-home order was if it limited churches far into the future, well after the danger of COVID-19 has passed.
“We really trust our governor. He’s leaded and guided us well.” Raydeane Owens said. “We really are grateful that he has chosen churches as one of the few that gets to open first.”
Ron Hessel, who leads Northwest Ministries, a Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Post Falls, said church leadership has been struggling with whether to reopen, saying just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.
“We’ve got to build up our herd immunity, we’ve got to get vaccines in place, we’ve got to give the health care (system) a chance,” he said. “We have to do something. We want to be supportive of our community and of our government.”
The church will resume service May 9, but will practice social distancing and encourage some to watch online.
Other pastors have decided to wait until the end of May or until June to resume services.
Mike Rima, pastor of Lake City Church in Coeur d’Alene, said his church discussed coming back during the early stages of Little’s order, but decided it would not be able to follow the social distancing guidelines.
He said some small groups that meet at the church and can manage social distancing, like Alcoholics Anonymous, may meet in the next month, but regular church services likely won’t resume until June.
He said he’s tried to share information from health care experts with the congregation and has been hosting webinars where he talks through issues the congregation is facing, like marriage and family troubles, as well as grief.
He said the church is connecting without coming together physically and that many members have realized they may have taken the act of meeting – and the fellowship and spiritual comfort it offers – for granted.
“When you’re able to just access anybody at any time, you don’t really even think about it until you’re told to stay home,” he said.
The Rev. Heather Seman, head pastor at Community United Methodist Church in Coeur d’Alene, said the vast majority of her congregation is over 60 and vulnerable. She said if they met together too soon, social distancing, sanitizing and separating those who are vulnerable may be so stressful that a service may not be worship anymore.
“Worship is being in a comfortable space with the people that you care about,” she said. “None of those are happening. You can’t do any of the stuff that gives us that comfort until much later. It would be an act of just saying we’re gathering for worship. I don’t know whether we’d be actually worshiping.”
In the meantime, she’s set up a series of interviews with local experts on some of the issues her congregation is facing. She interviewed a child psychiatrist and a teacher and plans to interview a funeral director soon.
Seman said the congregation of 160 isn’t meeting until the end of May, but when it does, it will likely spend the first week focusing on that positive moment.
“When we do finally come back together – we missed Easter – there’s so much we have missed that we have to go all in on the joy,” she said. “We’ll get to the grief. We just want to love each other first and feel the joy of that.”
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