17 FAQs for Houses of Worship Considering Reopening Amid the Coronavirus Crisis

People pray inside of St. Michael's Church in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, May 2020.

The Trump administration’s chaotic and politicized response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has thus far tragically and unnecessarily claimed at least 117,700 American lives, has been particularly troubling with regard to houses of worship. In the early days of the United States’ patchwork lockdown, the administration sent mixed messages. At first, it denied the threat and downplayed the severity of the crisis. After finally recognizing the crisis, the Trump administration brazenly suggested, without evidence, that Easter, April 12, would be a good time to reopen for in-person worship; reality quickly forced it to back away from that position. Now, months into the crisis, with COVID-19 cases and deaths still rising, the administration has once again ignored the facts and fully embraced reopening houses of worship. Throughout the crisis, the administration has also advanced the false notion that the right to religious freedom prevents the government from including houses of worship in generally applicable public health orders. Because of this lack of national leadership, houses of worship and other faith-based institutions are in the challenging position of having to seek out public health guidance on their own.

Houses of worship have sadly been at the center of numerous outbreaks of COVID-19. A worship service in Kentucky led to an outbreak that resulted in three deaths and spread more than 200 miles away from the church. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a March church service in Arkansas attended by 92 worshippers led to 35 of them contracting the virus and three people perishing. In California, 70 cases were linked to a single church. A bishop in Virginia who vowed to keep preaching “unless I’m in jail or the hospital” succumbed to the virus. More recently, in Idaho, a late May religious revival held in violation of a statewide executive order led to at least 35 new cases. In Union County, Oregon, at least 99 new cases were confirmed on June 15 alone and are suspected of originating in a church that did not follow public health guidelines. Notable outbreaks at worship gatherings have also occurred in South Korea, Malaysia, and Germany. As this pandemic continues, there is every reason to remain concerned about the continuation of all in-person gatherings, including worship services.

After premature reopenings led to new outbreaks of the virus, churches in Texas and Georgia have even been forced to suspend in-person worship services for a second time. The rush to hold in-person services across the country—driven primarily by political concerns—is yet another failure of political leadership during the pandemic. The CDC’s Interim Guidance for Faith Communities, initially withheld from release and then watered down by Trump administration officials, is an insufficient resource to guide houses of worship. One striking example of how this guidance falls short is the removal of the recommendation to “avoid or consider suspending use of a choir or musical ensemble during religious services or other programming,” which appeared in a draft version of the document leaked to press. That specific guideline was deleted despite numerous expert recommendations against singing in close proximity to others. In a May 12 report, the CDC described a choir practice at a church as a “superspreading” event that led to illness in most of the 61 participants and two deaths.

In lieu of a coordinated national response, faith leaders have the difficult but necessary responsibility to develop their own plans based on the best available public health evidence. To aid faith leaders in this process, the Center for American Progress has compiled the following answers to FAQs.

1. When will it be safe for houses of worship to resume some form of in-person gatherings?

Houses of worship should look to publicly available health data in their state to decide when to resume limited in-person gatherings. Sadly, many governors allowed in-person worship services to continue during the initial spike in COVID-19 cases in the United States. Recently, more governors are lifting restrictions due to political pressure, including from those few religious groups that never saw a reason to stop gathering in the first place.

Houses of worship should continue to suspend large group gatherings until the following benchmarks are met in their state:

  • Transmission is controllable as evidenced by a low level of incidence—the rate of occurrence of new cases. The CDC defines a low level of incidence as 10 or fewer new cases per 100,000 people over a period of 14 days.
  • Testing capacity is adequate to detect outbreaks and identify and isolate positive cases as well as their contacts, and testing achieves a positive test rate of 2 percent (when only 2 percent of people tested are confirmed to be infected with COVID-19).
  • The state has sufficient contact tracers and instantaneous contact tracing technology in order to enable tracing within 48 hours of at least 70 percent of the contacts of a person testing positive for COVID-19.

Importantly, houses of worship may want to exercise additional caution if the city or county in which they are located has not yet met these benchmarks, even if the state as a whole has.

2. What restrictions for the size of gatherings should remain in place once some in-person gatherings resume?

Once the three thresholds noted above are met, houses of worship can consider holding large group meetings again. Until then, however, gatherings should be limited in size so that members of different households are not spaced any closer than 6 feet apart in any direction. Generally, this means gatherings should be limited to 25 percent of the capacity of the room where the gathering is taking place or a maximum of 50 people—whichever amounts to the fewest people. Specific precautions to limit the spread of the virus are detailed below. Online options for vulnerable populations should be offered throughout the phased reopening. Some houses of worship are setting up online registration to allow households to take turns attending in-person services.

Only after local public health experts determine it is safe enough to do so should the capacity limit can be relaxed to 50 percent or 50 people—whichever amounts to fewer people. While many state, county, and local governments have exempted religious gatherings from public health orders and are relaxing a number of restrictions, this is not necessarily an indication that large gatherings are safe. Rather, as indicated above, houses of worship may in fact present a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 than some other communal settings. This is because many worship activities involve physical contact, sharing of food or objects, and congregational singing or other group vocalizations which are superspreading in nature. (see FAQ 8 below) In addition, it may be safer to reopen larger gatherings sooner in some geographical areas than in others depending on the local incidence rate, positive test rate, and contact tracing capacity, as indicated above. Local public health departments are most likely to have the best up-to-date information regarding those rates in the local population surrounding a house of worship.

Again, it is important to note that houses of worship should not consider gathering in groups of more than 50 people until the benchmarks listed in #1 have been achieved.

3. When can all restrictions be safely lifted?

It will likely be some time before it is safe to lift all restrictions, and houses of worship will need to plan accordingly. Transmission is likely to become under control only through the widespread use of a vaccine or effective nonpharmaceutical interventions. COVID-19 will continue to be a dangerous condition for those infected until there are effective and widely available treatment options. This may be difficult news for many congregations. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is recommending that congregations plan for ongoing virtual gatherings and operations through May 2021. While houses of worship may consider holding limited in-person gatherings as outlined in FAQs 1 and 2, the UUA’s guidance is prudent in going above and beyond basic precautions before all of the aforementioned restrictions can be lifted.

4. How do outdoor services fit into reopening plans?

Worship services conducted outdoors are likely to be significantly safer than those conducted indoors, and houses of worship may wish to resume gathering exclusively outdoors before the thresholds mentioned above are met. Gathering in person, even outdoors, still presents some risk, and it is important to take the same precautions that one would for any indoor services. (see FAQs 5–15 below) Research regarding the risk of exposure across many contexts—including outdoor gatherings—is still in development, and much is still unknown.

Some houses of worship have begun offering drive-in worship services that allow congregants to attend provided that they remain in their cars, which significantly reduces the risk of exposure. In these cases, community members should take precaution to maintain a 6-foot distance between vehicles if the vehicles’ windows are open. There should be no shared worship materials or access to building facilities for these services.

5. What steps are necessary for houses of worship to maintain physical distancing with limited in-person indoor worship services?

Individuals who are not in the same household should maintain 6 feet of distance in every direction, including movement in, out, and around the facility. Houses of worship must establish a plan for movement so that foot traffic only flows in one direction and designate separate doorways for entering and exiting. They must also ensure that all instructions for movement and physical distancing are communicated in advance, marked with signage, and facilitated by trained staff or volunteers. Internal movement at the house of worship should be as limited and controlled as feasible.

Absolutely no physical contact should be permitted between people of different households. It is important to closely observe children to help them maintain physical distancing and avoid conducting any children’s programming where children might come into contact with members of other households.

Specific rituals requiring physical contact between a faith leader and congregant should be adapted to avoid physical contact or postponed altogether. If the house of worship considers it absolutely necessary to continue these rituals, the following additional precautions should be taken: Close proximity between individuals should last no longer than a few seconds; both parties must wear masks; physical contact should only occur with both parties wearing gloves or unless hand-washing can occur immediately afterward; and the same gloves or other shared surfaces should not come into contact with multiple people without being properly disinfected after each use.

6. Should masks be required with limited in-person indoor worship services?

Masks or other face coverings should be required for all people. Children younger than 2 years old or anyone who has trouble breathing and cannot wear a mask should not attend in-person services until all restrictions can be safely lifted.

7. What precautions regarding shared objects and surfaces must be taken during limited in-person indoors worship services?

Houses of worship should avoid any shared objects or surfaces. Worship aids, prayer rugs, prayer books, hymnals, religious texts, bulletins, books, or any other item that multiple people could touch should be removed from spaces where members visit. Houses of worship may consider distributing digital versions of scriptural readings, previously recorded recitations, or other materials.

Community members should bring with them items such as prayer rugs or head coverings in order to avoid sharing objects or surface areas. For example, mosques may want to require that individuals bring their own prayer rugs or sheets to avoid prostrating on the same surface; if individuals do not bring these items, the mosque may want to provide disposable options.

Any religious rituals that require communal food and beverages should either be halted or distributed in a manner that allows for prepackaged individual options.

Ritual washing should be similarly modified to avoid touching shared surfaces. Any regularly touched objects or surfaces should be disinfected after each use. Houses of worship may wish to encourage members to engage in ritual washing at home or to provide alternatives such as providing prefilled disposable cups in order to avoid touching shared faucets.

Houses of worship must modify their methods to receive financial contributions, as no money or checks should be exchanged in person.

8. What about congregational singing?

Choirs and congregational singing are among the most dangerous activities because they generate a larger number of infectious aerosol particles over an extended period of time. For example, a choir rehearsal in a church with 61 members present resulted in 53 cases and two deaths. Singing during services should be avoided and replaced with recorded music or live instrumental music.

For gatherings held outdoors, the risk is still present, though somewhat reduced, even if all congregants are appropriately distanced and wearing masks. Singing or call-and-response activities could undermine the efficacy of masks, even outdoors, as they may become saturated with moisture more quickly and serve as a less effective barrier.

If singing or recitation is an important part of a service, houses of worship could limit those activities to one individual—for example, a soloist or cantor—who is further distanced from the rest of the congregation. In such an instance, the use of a face shield or another clear barrier such as plexiglass between the individual and the rest of the congregation would maximize safety. Another option includes remote viewing of the individual through video streaming. In cases where the individual faces away from the congregation, such as in Islamic prayer, no such barrier is necessary.

Wind and brass instruments should similarly be avoided until more research can determine their safety. A preliminary study suggests that some of these instruments may produce aerosol droplets in a similar fashion to singing.

9. What steps should be taken to monitor and screen members for COVID-19?

Staff and volunteers may wish to take congregants’ temperatures before they enter the house of worship with a noncontact thermometer or thermal imager. Any individual with a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher or signs of illness should be denied entry. If an individual with a known case of COVID-19 has been to the house of worship, they should immediately notify local health officials and congregation. Houses of worship should work with local public health officials to determine how to trace others with whom that person may have had contact and whether to suspend in-person gatherings again. The list of COVID-19 symptoms should be posted and communicated to congregants before they attend services. Congregants should be advised to not attend services if they have any of the following symptoms, as determined by the CDC:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

10. How can houses of worship ensure facilities maintain proper sanitation and hygiene?

Houses of worship should clean and disinfect any regularly touched surface areas according to CDC guidelines. In addition, they should make restrooms available to only one person at a time and disinfect any shared surfaces after each use. They should also be sure that any services or gatherings held on the same day are scheduled in such a way that allows time to clean and disinfect between gatherings.

Houses of worship should make sure hand sanitizer, hand-washing facilities, and open trash cans are all readily available. They should post signs near hand-washing stations to remind staff and congregants about the importance of frequent and thorough hand-washing.

Finally, houses of worship should use fans or ventilation systems to maintain constant airflow from the outdoors throughout indoor spaces. They should keep doors and windows open unless doing so would be hazardous to small children.

11. How should houses of worship protect vulnerable populations in particular? 

Individuals who are at higher risk of serious illness due to COVID-19 should not attend in-person indoor gatherings until all restrictions are safely lifted. Houses of worship should continue to provide remote options for worship services for the benefit of those who may be at higher risk.

12. What about social services and community care programs?

Social services provided by houses of worship should address only essential needs and may be subject to additional regulations or guidance under their state, county, or local governments. For example, many houses of worship have continued to provide meal services to individuals in need by transitioning to serving as pick-up locations offering individually packaged meals.

13. Should special exceptions be made for life events such as weddings and funerals?

No. The same restrictions listed above still apply.

14. How should houses of worship enforce health safety requirements?

Houses of worship should communicate all of the above restrictions and procedures to all staff, congregants, and potential visitors, particularly in advance of any in-person gatherings. Advance communication is necessary to prevent any conflict or confusion. It may feel uncomfortable for staff or volunteers to deny someone entry, monitor physical distancing, require masks, or enforce other similar requirements, but these precautions are necessary. Successful adherence to the new guidelines and procedures is only possible if the entire community agrees to participate. For example, one denominational group established a policy of ending services if any one individual refuses to comply with requirements.

The development and enforcement of new restrictions and procedures should be led by a team of individuals at the house of worship to ensure that the burden of responsibility does not land on any one single member of the community. As a first step before engaging in any in-person worship, houses of worship should establish a committee whose role is to advise the community’s senior faith leaders or boards on how best to execute these new policies. It is recommended that this committee include a senior clergyperson or religious instructor, a senior lay leader or program director, a member of the board, a community member who serves as an usher or greeter, and, if possible, a medical professional and an attorney.

15. How can houses of worship ensure they have taken all necessary precautions? 

Since the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in the United States, public health experts have been working quickly to understand more about COVID-19 and how it spreads. Yet, much is still unknown. By following the guidance listed above, houses of worship can engage in their best efforts to keep visitors safe.

In addition to the guidance above, CAP recommends consulting the relevant regulations and guidance that state, county, or local governments may have provided. House of worship insurance companies may also have criteria that are related to the conditions that must be present in order to engage in certain activities.

If houses of worship are under the authority of a larger religious entity or denomination, that may be another source of guidance or recommendations. The Sikh Coalition, for example, regularly updates a spreadsheet of statewide guidance for houses of worship here. (See FAQ 17 for a list of public health guidance from faith-based and other nongovernmental organizations.)

16. What are good resources for faith communities struggling to reconcile faith and science?

Some people of faith have expressed concerns that to follow public health guidance would be a failure to trust in divine intervention to keep them safe from COVID-19. Others feel that public health guidance was itself divinely facilitated in order to help keep them safe. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins—who is an evangelical Christian, physician, and scientist—was recently awarded the Templeton Prize for bridging divides between faith and science. In an interview with The Washington Post, he said:

Theology was once called the queen of all the sciences because it was also an effort to deduce knowledge. That’s really what atheists and scientists look for: different kinds of knowledge. Faith leaders ask questions about why. Scientists ask questions about how.

Collins also founded BioLogos, an organization for evangelical Christians to learn about science. Other religious traditions also have resources for exploring science and religion, including Sinai and Synapses, which approaches questions from a Jewish perspective. The American Association for the Advancement of Science also runs a Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.

17. Where can more guidance and recommendations specific to my faith tradition be found?

The following list provides additional guidance for different faith communities.

Conclusion

Faith communities can and must successfully navigate the process of reopening safely by following public health guidelines. And while the Trump administration has made this process difficult by sending mixed messages and politicizing the reopening of houses of worship, many states and faith-based organizations have stepped up to fill this leadership void and are proceeding prudentially for the common good. The recommendations presented here provide the best available guidance for houses of worship to continue some activities while reducing the risk to their congregations.

At the Center for American Progress, Maggie Siddiqi is the director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative; Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons is a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative; Maura Calsyn is the managing director of Health Policy; Thomas Waldrop is a policy analyst for Health Policy; and Samantha Behar is an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.

The authors would like to especially thank epidemiologists Anna Bauer, Ph.D., and Kimberly Powers, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Tara C. Smith, Ph.D., of Kent State University for their helpful insights and review of this publication. The authors would also like to thank John Blevins, Th.D., of Emory University and Tahil Sharma of the United Religions Initiative for their consultation on this publication.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.