Bishop: Be Cautious in Re-Opening

 

6/28/2021

Although Pennsylvania's mask mandate was lifted on June 28, some businesses and public facilities such as mass transit still require masks. Overall, the latest advice from Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and the Abundant Health Team still applies: Exercise caution and consider the vaccination rate and other conditions in your area and among your congregation in resuming worship and other group activities. 

In a May 17 e-mail to church leaders, the Bishop shared guidelines to consider.  Here is the text of her email. 

We offer praise that vaccination rates in our nation and state have reached a level where the Center for Disease Control and the PA Department of Health say that fully vaccinated people can resume pre-pandemic activities without wearing a mask unless required by local authorities, businesses or workplaces. Nevertheless, along with our Abundant Health Team, I recommend that congregations continue to exercise appropriate caution in determining how they gather. It is important to remember that faith-based gatherings, particularly worship, are unlike most indoor settings.

The apostle Paul advises Christians that they should "take care that your liberty does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8: 9). The minimum standard is not necessarily the guide by which the church should operate.

Churches, like public transit vehicles, are places where people of mixed vaccine status are together for some time with limited ventilation. When gathering indoors for worship, we don’t want to put our church leaders or volunteers in the position of checking vaccination status to admit people to worship. This practice can be exclusionary and counter to our Christian witness.

About 60 percent of people in the U.S. remain unvaccinated and at higher risk of COVID transmission. Some — particularly children under the age of 12 and medically fragile individuals such as pregnant women or the immune-compromised — have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated. These individuals deserve the highest care and protection of their church and community. All deserve to see the example of faithful people expressing the love of Christ by taking sensible precautions. In our excitement at good news for the vaccinated, let’s not commit the sin of overlooking parts of the body. Hastily-implemented practices can exclude “the least of these” and threaten their health. The vulnerable among us should not be expected to bear the burden of others’ unwillingness to be vaccinated or follow COVID-safe policies.

To adapt your practices to be less restrictive, some trusted sources recommend following a "two out of three" approach:  masks and social distancing indoors, and choosing either masks OR distancing as a strategy when gathering outdoors.

Although vaccination and improved medical care have eased the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, it is not behind us. Our faith calls us to resist the temptation to assume that being vaccinated means our actions are without consequence to those we claim to love the most. 

DO’s and DON’Ts

DO:

  • Continue to follow COVID-safe practices until background levels of virus are very low (see below)
  • Plan gathering and building re-opening carefully and thoughtfully.
  • Follow state and local guidelines, which are not affected by the new CDC advice
  • Provide an example of good health practices, such as wearing masks, particularly for children who have not been vaccinated
  • Gather in ways that do not exclude or put at risk unvaccinated members of the community, such as children or medically vulnerable individuals
  • Encourage people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 (those 12 and up are now eligible in Pennsylvania) The vaccine is safe.

DON’T:

  • Decide the pandemic is over
  • Rush into fully re-opening
  • Discard safe worship practices
  • Ignore state or local health regulations
  • Act in ways that require unvaccinated or vulnerable members to choose between being safe and participating in the community

Think about viral transmission in your community as you make your decisions. While vaccination rates are slowing, the number of vaccinated people has already begun to have an impact on viral transmission, which is declining overall. Most epidemiologists recommend avoiding large public gatherings indoors until viral transmission in the community is very low. Pennsylvania data, which can be sorted by county or zip code is available at www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/coronavirus/Pages/Cases.aspx
 

The following information and recommendations still apply:

  • Continue to offer virtual options for those who are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19
  • In Pennsylvania, indoor capacity limits were lifted May 31 and mask mandates in most areas were lifted June 28 as the vaccination rate neared 70% of the population.
  • Individuals 2 years of age and older should wear a snuggly-fitting mask over their noses and mouths
  • Maintain at least 6 feet distance between people from different households
  • Commonly touched surfaces should be disinfected
  • Avoid sharing objects that cannot be easily cleaned and disinfected
  • Wash and sanitize hands frequently
  • Stay home if you are sick
  • Avoid group singing without masks, especially indoors
  • Keep a list of attendees at any church event for contact tracing purposes
  • Practice good hand hygiene and physical distancing while serving communion
  • Follow the advice of state and local public health experts, as guidelines are frequently being updated

 
Portions of this email were adapted from guidance issued by the Wisconsin Council of Churches.