MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has released a set of guidelines on reopening churches in the state, preempting the plans of Shelby County leaders.
The governor’s new guidelines include:
- Vulnerable populations (everyone 65 years and older, people with disabilities, people with serious respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, people who are immunocompromised, and others) and children’s activities/nursery programs should not gather in person until a later time.
- Consider solutions to minimize close personal contact that may be part of your services, such as handshakes or sharing food and drink.
- As the phased approach begins, limit the size of attendance in your sanctuary and other confined spaces to create seating arrangements that provide at least 6-foot distancing between families. It is recommended not to exceed 50% of maximum capacity of the room and should enable full compliance with CDC recommendations for social distancing and hygiene.
- Wear face coverings.
- Encourage members of the community to stay at home if they are symptomatic, have a fever, have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, or have traveled internationally or to a domestic hot spot in the past two weeks.
- If a member of the congregation has tested positive for COVID-19, consult CDC guidelines and local health department recommendations to determine whether in-person gatherings should cease immediately, the building should close for additional cleaning, or other protocol changes are required.
The full list of guidelines is available here.
In a release sent Friday afternoon, Lee said the decision to conduct in-person services should be left up to each individual faith community.
“Religious liberty is important and must be protected,” Lee said, “and that’s why the State has always deemed religious services as essential gatherings throughout this pandemic.”
The governor said his administration is confident in these communities’ ability to determine the right time to open and incorporate the guidelines.
Lee’s executive order prevents Shelby County’s original plan to open places of worship at 25 percent capacity.
“Therefore, places of worship should follow regulations issued by the governor,” Mayor Jim Strickland said Friday.
But both the mayor and the governor agree that continuing with virtual services is the best course of action for now.
“We have recommended, and we continue to recommend, that churches not meet during this time, but we want to go ahead and put this guidance out so churches can begin the planning process,” Lee said.
“Please continue to offer virtual in addition to any in person services. I know this is difficult,” Strickland said.
Local pastors and faith leaders say will continue with virtual services citing concerns for high risk members, access to masks and the difficulty of social distancing as some of the reasons for the decision.
“Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church will not open until all our congregants can safely gather together in the sanctuary,” said Pastor Earle Fisher.
Doctors say for those who do plan to hold in person services, it’s important they don’t resume doing things the same way.
“What we need the public to know is when they do go back that they need to be very cautious,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Manoj Jain.
Which is why Fisher says he’ll make a more data driven decision instead of an emotional one when it comes to his flock.
“Until we can get a hard grasp on this infection,” Fisher said. “It is not time, as far as I’m concerned, to be trying to rush our way back into the sanctuary and ultimately put more lives at risk.”