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Open houses of worship: Now that churches can have more people, will they?

Open houses of worship: Now that churches can have more people, will they?

GREENSBORO — When mosques, synagogues and churches were forced to close their doors under state mandates earlier this year because of the deadly spread of COVID-19, many moved worship online.

They gathered virtually on Facebook and elsewhere over the internet, saying they wouldn't reopen until they could safely do so.

For many churchgoers, young and especially old, the live stream on Sunday morning has become their new normal during the pandemic, which has led to the deaths of more than 3,700  across North Carolina.

Now, after months of uncertainty, houses of worship statewide are allowed to have more parishioners — but with restrictions. Different churches have met the news with different reactions.

Some churches welcome the chance to return to their old routines.

Others are being understandably cautious and will stay away.

At least today.

"It’s not worth one of my members getting sick," said the Rev. Ray Calhoun of Community Chapel Baptist Church.

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During the spring, Community Chapel set up canopies on the church lawn and nearby parking lot. A sound system and FM radios are used to pump the service to congregants. Church members even wear their masks outside.

"Some people," Calhoun said, "are still afraid to get out of their cars."

Across town, St. John's Anglican Church reopened its sanctuary in May for in-person worship although it is also live-streaming services.

"I can tell you the last seven-plus months have been challenging and yet there are opportunities we probably would not have seen as clearly without going through this," the Rev. Mark Menees said. "None of us can really know the long-term impact of the COVID pandemic, but we cannot wait for it to simply subside."

So they meticulously plan, take precautions and gather.

Instead of passing the offering plate in the sanctuary, it has been placed on a stand.

Parishioners use masks while singing or chanting the liturgy.

Unless they share the same household, people sit 6 feet apart as mandated by state health officials.

And between Mass, lots of cleaning takes place. 

When Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled a three-part plan for reopening the state in the wake of the coronavirus crisis this spring, church services were limited to no more than 10 people indoors to minimize the risk of infection from the highly contagious respiratory disease.

Later, a federal judge's order allowed churches to reopen.

Under the state's newest guidelines, houses of worship must limit gatherings to the lesser of 30% occupancy or 100 people.

That's been acceptable for some congregations. Many think it's not enough.

The decision to more fully reopen churches has been fraught with controversy for months as North Carolina has tried to ride out the pandemic. Many thought it infringed on their freedom to worship and some churches, backed by local sheriffs, openly disregarded tighter restrictions that were in place.

Weeks ago, North Carolina's rate of infections had leveled off significantly, prompting state health officials and Cooper to ease restrictions.

Of late, that's changed. North Carolina has been rocked by a rising number of infections — there were 2,834 on Friday alone — concerning some that a return to normalcy is too premature. Especially for churches, whose older members are particularly susceptible to COVID-19.

The Rev. Jennifer Copeland of the N.C. Council of Churches says it is "a time when more caution is needed and not less," adding that a number of communities seem to be taking their time going back.

Copeland has been following "super spreader" incidents that result in a cluster of coronavirus cases, including one being connected to a choir performance.

Because singing has been known to make the virus more transmissible, it's been banned by most churches. 

"Some of the things we value," Copeland said, "are dangerous for us right now."

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Like so many facets of life, the coronavirus has changed the way we worship — regardless of how many people are allowed to attend and irrespective of denomination.

The cleaning of door handles and other surfaces is a constant and more commonplace.

Shaking hands. Giving hugs. Taking communion. All the things that are staples of a Sunday service have been retooled and rethought in the wake of the coronavirus.

At White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, church members are "excited and anxious" to be back, executive director Andrew Amodei says.

Each person is required to wear a mask and given instructions on where to enter and exit.

And, of course, no singing. 

Much of the congregation will continue to worship online, Amodei said. But those who want to come back are ready and willing.

"The primary reason is they need one another," Amodei said.

Liz Hounshell, the pastor of Zebulon United Methodist Church, would like to hear the melodious voices of her congregation. It just won't be today.

"I think everybody is looking forward to being able to sing in the sanctuary again," she said.

Back in Greensboro at St. John's Anglican Church, members no longer drink from a shared chalice during communion.

And the only person not wearing a mask is Menees — even during the liturgy when words are spoken.

The church also had to change traditions. Instead of kneeling, which requires some to grab the altar rail, church leaders have done away with the practice altogether.

The church is offering additional Mass services to allow for physical distancing among the pews.

Between those services, the church will be cleaned.

The week's hymns are printed on paper and passed out.

"The main thing is that we just try to be very very careful, " Menees said.

At Community Chapel, which has a congregation of about 30 people who are mostly elderly, Calhoun has gotten creative in how the church carries out its mission while looking out for members.

The church's vacation Bible school this summer was drive-thru.

This weekend, the congregation sponsored a pumpkin carving — with volunteers wearing masks and gloves.

Lately, the weather has been on Calhoun's mind as the temperature drops.

He'll have to figure out how to keep people warm, especially under the canopies. He's thought about adding heat lamps.

He figures he has a while to sort it out and he's thinking through a lot of ideas.

"I've told them that if you wrap up for the ball game you can wrap up to come here," said Calhoun with a laugh.

He said the church could have tried going indoors. Could have tried taking temperatures at the doorway. Could have tried keeping people 6 feet apart. Could have tried a lot of things to hold a church service inside and still ensure the safety of those in the pews. 

Sports leagues are doing it. Businesses and schools, too.

But for Community Chapel and others, that'll have to wait. Just too great a risk.

Still, there's something about being shoulder to shoulder in the pews on a Sunday morning as the harmonies of the choir reverberate from floor to ceiling.

"Some people just gotta go over and talk to somebody," Calhoun said of being indoors. "It’s because we love the fellowship and we love each other. I just don't want them going through that."

The Tribune News Service contributed to this story.

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.

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