The numbers of new cases of COVID-19 are at an unprecedented high. Our treatments are significantly better and the two new vaccines are now becoming available and are highly effective. Even though there is cause for optimism, our emergency rooms are strained and death rates particular among the elderly have risen to the level that we saw in March and April. Christmas is coming up. Should our churches should be open for worship?
As an infectious disease physician who has been providing care for patients in the hospital with COVID-19, and as a deacon in the Catholic Church, I have thought about this a lot. The CDC gives excellent guidance (which is available online) on how to decrease transmission of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The 3W’s our key: wear a mask, watch your distance, and wash your hands. The CDC makes it clear the same guidance will decrease the spread of the virus in churches, just as it does in supermarkets or drug stores or home improvement centers.
Prayer (alone and together), weekly worship, and the sacraments help us to stay healthy in mind and body and soul. There is now widespread recognition that the strain on our mental health going through this pandemic is enormous. Anxiety and depression are at high levels and treatment for mental illness is often hard to access. Suicide rates are high among all ages. There is excellent hard scientific data on the benefits of regular worship (usually defined as weekly in most studies) which provides social and mental health support and bolsters resiliency. “Going to church” should not be seen as a luxury or as nonessential but should be viewed as an essential community activity. Let’s face it… in many states, liquor stores and casinos have been considered essential while unsympathetic governors or mayors have deemed church to be “nonessential” and tried to close them down.
Most churches have been following the guidelines to decrease transmission conscientiously. Every other pew is roped off, worshipers wear masks, choirs no longer sing together, and good hand hygiene is made available throughout the church. Outbreaks have occurred in church settings when these guidelines were not followed. So these guidelines are important!
Going to church is not mandatory; it is a choice. Parishioners that are elderly or at high-risk or worried should not feel obliged to go to church. But for those that choose to go, it’s critical that the churches remain open. Kudos to our church leaders who have spoken out in the press or have filed lawsuits to insist that the churches remain open while they follow the CDC guidelines. Church is essential; please don’t close them down!
Dr. Timothy P Flanigan MD is Professor of Medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and a Deacon at Saint Theresa and Saint Christopher Catholic Church in Tiverton, Rhode Island.