Securing your place of worship against COVID-19
Whilst many places of worship have remained open for communal services in some of the UK, there will still be changes to usual practices for worshippers of all religions as normal daily life gets closer. Currently, there are a number of safety protocols that are required in order for places of worship to conduct a limited form of service which restrict the chance of viral transmission. A few of these measures include:
• Services should be carried out in the shortest possible time – to ensure safety and minimise infection spread
• Worshippers should keep a 2m (6ft) distance from anyone not from their own household or support bubble
• Those giving and receiving food and drink in a service will have to observe strict precautions
• If singing is an essential part of the service, and a recording can’t be played, only one person should sing – preferably behind a plexi-glass screen, or facing away from worshippers
Experts say outbreaks have occurred at churches, in part, because of the personal behaviours that congregations often engage in.
“The members know each other. They enjoy seeing each other. They hug, they kiss, and they spend a fair amount of prolonged time in close association” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert. “In many religious services, people speak in unison. They often sing and have choirs and those energetic ways of projecting your voice and exhaling can potentially enhance transmission of respiratory droplets.”
Despite the successful rollout of the vaccination process throughout the UK, caution must still be taken after the country resumes normal societal functions. All restrictions on weddings, funerals, and other life events could be abolished in England from 21 June under the fourth and final stage of the Government’s four-month plan to reopen the country after a year of coronavirus lockdowns.
As the year progresses, each church must make its own decision based on its specific needs and convictions, and there will be a range of views within each church on what should be done. Effective and transparent communication between leaders and congregations will be essential and it must also be remembered that there may be a difference between the level of risk we accept for ourselves and that which we explicitly or implicitly expect others to take..
Reducing Transmission Frequency
Churches should look to continue the protocols they have implemented, even after the optimal threshold for vaccinations have been completed. This will include things such as
• crowd management – can you maintain 2 metres distance? How do you manage entry and egress (eg. one-way systems, staggered arrivals/departures)? How do you maintain social distance (eg. placement of chairs, cordoning off, demarcation on the floor)? People should be encouraged to move on promptly after a service; what alternatives can you use for social interaction (eg. ‘coffee time’ on Zoom afterwards).
• frequent cleaning schedules – pay particular attention to objects and surfaces that are touched regularly, and to busy areas. Ensure toilets are kept clean, use liquid rather than a bar of soap, and where possible, provide paper towels as an alternative to hand dryers in hand washing facilities. If regular cleaning of toilets is challenging you may need to think about shutting them or limiting access.
• optimal ventilation – can you maintain a natural draft? Do you need fans? Will you need to review arrangements when the weather gets cooler?
• limited contact between parishioners – do you prop doors open to avoid door handles? What about fire doors? This can also apply to bibles as these communal objects can result in multiple individuals touching and exchanging a single bible. Encourage BYOB (Bring your own bible) and laminate hymn sheets that can be sanitized and cleaned after each service.
On top of these basic but essential considerations to minimise virus transmission, you may find there are still several other risks arising from leaving your building underused, or completely unused during the extended lockdown. Upon reopening to a normal schedule, these risks should also be investigated and addressed once the threat level of COVID-19 is reduced:
• general maintenance and hygiene: it would be best to conduct some general inspections, checking in particular for water ingress, high levels of dust (which can be a respiratory irritant and a fire hazard), or just something rotting at the bottom of a bin! Also, run the taps for a while to clear stagnant water from the pipes to minimise legionella risk.
• lapsed inspections and service visits: arrange any needed inspections such as on gas systems, electricals, portable appliance testing, firefighting equipment, legionella, asbestos, alarm tests or statutory inspections on stairlifts.
• risk assessments: are your activities going to be sufficiently altered by your COVID secure measures that their risk assessments are no longer valid? Are you planning to run activities in a different manner that requires a new risk assessment (eg. outdoor events)? Templates and guidance are available from the Government’s Health and Safety Executive website.
• resilience: how resilient are you if a key person (eg. the pastor, or whoever runs the live streaming) suddenly has to self-isolate? Do you have ‘reserves’ for the key roles? Do you have a plan if the entire congregation needs to self-isolate due to a positive case?
Whilst this blog is unlikely to cover every eventuality, it should provide you with a starting point for your own risk assessments so that you can make a decision which appropriately balances the competing desires to come together again as a physical church, and also to keep your congregation safe.
Please also remember that Government guidance is fluid and churches will need to adapt accordingly – even if that means going back to the full lockdown conditions.
You can read the Government guidance for the safe use of places of worship (published 29 June) on the gov.uk website.