October 25, 2021

Churches anticipate changes as they prepare to reopen

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

The Rev. David Johnson stands in a pew in the United Presbyterian Church of Cortland. Churches and houses of worship are developing plans to reopen in Phase 4 of the state’s reopening, including social distancing and other efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

How churches will operate though once given the green light to re-open during the coronavirus pandemic remains up in the air, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that churches and other religious places of gathering would be a part of Phase 4 of the reopening process.

“The gathering is the issue,” he said in a news conference after houses of worship were not included in the state’s initial reopening plans.

While it is undetermined when Phase 4 will occur — Phase 1 began just on Friday — Cortland County church leaders are working on plans now for when they can reopen their churches to their congregations.

“We’re going to go slow,” said the Rev. David Johnson of the United Presbyterian Church of Cortland. “We’re going to listen to the advice we get from the state and local leaders. We’re going to listen to the best medical advice.”

Johnson said he hadn’t heard the news Tuesday of Cuomo’s classifications of where churches will fit into the state’s plans for reopening, but said that it was helpful in providing guidance.

Since closing the church to the public in March, Johnson and other members of the church’s leadership have been meeting via Zoom to plan how the church could operate when it is given the clear to reopen, whenever that may be.

The church may no longer use hymn books, which would need to be wiped down after each service. People and families will probably be spaced out in the pews and after-service social events, like a monthly luncheon, will probably remain on hiatus.

In addition to this, the church will have to decide about what will be done for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Helping Hands Caring Heart Inc., a non-profit that helps pregnant women and families, who meet at the church.

“I anticipate there’s going to be some different ways of looking at church and doing things,” he said.

In the meantime, the church will continue holding prerecorded Sunday services on its website and wait for more instructions from the governor.

The Rev. Paul Alciati of St. Margaret’s Catholic Church in Homer said the news churches would be part of Phase 4 was “no surprise to us.” He didn’t expect to reopen until the end of June or beginning of July.

Alciati is awaiting guidelines from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse about how services will be allowed when the time comes.

“All that is in the works,” he said.

In the meantime, he marked off six-foot intervals on the floor between the pews for a reduced capacity, 131 people, down from its full capacity of 300 to 350. He’s had a deep cleaning and sanitization of the church, he said.

A TV and chairs will also be set up in the church’s basement to accommodate visitors and gloves will be worn when Communion is offered. Communion will not include wine, and church bulletins will be posted online, only.

While it will look different, Alciati said the changes are necessary for safety.

“I’d like to have things back to normal the way we used to have it but it’s not possible right now,” he said.

The Rev. Cory Eckstrom of Cortland’s St. Paul Lutheran Church said he felt more testing for COVID-19 in the county is needed, but he didn’t like how churches were put in the same group of gatherings as entertainment venues like concerts and movie theaters, other places set to reopen in Phase 4, as churches provide support for people.

“We feel it’s an unfortunate designation for churches,” he said.

Through Zoom meetings with other members of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, the church’s sect, Eckstrom said the church hoped to be part of Phase 2.

The church, though, will have to come up with plans for resuming in-person services, including limiting the number of people allowed in the church, perhaps by having two services, and by having all congregants wear masks and gloves, he said.

Streaming of services on the church’s Facebook page and conference calls of services will probably continue.

“Like a lot of people, we’re ready for a change,” he said. “We would like the new normal to match the old normal as much as possible.”