Reopening Of Churches

With the continued spread for the novel (new) coronavirus COVID-19 causing concern around the world, Adventist Risk Management, Inc. (ARM) is committed to providing relevant information for our clients regarding best-practices for prevention and mitigation of this serious disease.

Below are resources designed specifically for Seventh-day Adventist churches and schools, as well as important information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We have also included answers to several of our most frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding reopening churches

Q. Thorough and regular cleaning of churches is recommended, both before they reopen and even during services. Does this mean the church has to hire professional cleaners?

A. Cleaning to eliminate viruses should be more involved than regular cleanings. Professional cleaning services should be sought that are up to date on the latest procedures recommended for cleaning. If you normally use church staff or member-volunteers, be sure they are familiar with these procedures and have the additional time and cleaning products required to do a thorough job. If a professional cleaning service is used, have a written agreement that specifies the level of cleaning, the cleaning products or type of cleaning products to be used. Have the contract reviewed by counsel, particularly any liability-shifting provisions and make sure the service has liability insurance with sufficient limits.

Q. Should churches take attendance or participate in so-called "contact tracing" in order to track who may have come into contact with someone who becomes infected with COVID-19?

A. Churches are not required to take attendance. If you decide to gather that information or any other information, you should disclose this to the congregation. Local regulations should be checked and followed. If any local law is not understood or appears to be contrary to your right to freely exercise your religion, check with your conference attorney, the General Conference Office of General Counsel, or ARM’s legal services department. You should follow the guidance from your public health officials, including how and what information to record; however, seek legal advice in instances where you are uncertain. Churches who are required or chose to participate in contact tracing should generate minimal records and treat such records as personal information. Follow data privacy laws in protecting this information including having a plan to destroy or purge the information after a specific time period and as soon as possible.

Q. What safety measures are church members and visitors expected to follow when attending church?

A. Based on the advice from organizations such as the CDC and others, we are recommending churches ask congregants (over the age of 2) to be:

  • screened for a fever before entering the church
  • wear a mask or cloth face covering
  • maintain proper social distancing at all times. Designated seating areas in the sanctuary should reinforce social distancing policies, however, individuals from the same household may sit together.
  • Refrain from attendance if you are symptomatic or have been exposed to someone who is symptomatic in the last 14 days.
  • In some instances, limit the number of worshipers who can attend to allow for proper social distancing.
Q. Should the pastor be expected to wear a face covering while he's preaching?

A. In general, yes, it is recommended that a pastor or any presenter use a face covering while speaking from the front. The use of face coverings is designed to minimize the spread of the virus through droplets. Guidance from most governing authorities is two-fold: wear a face covering and stay more than 6 feet (2 meters) apart. Face coverings are particularly emphasized in enclosed spaces (inside buildings). It would be advisable that a pastor should wear a face covering if they are not at least 12 feet (4 meters) from the congregation and a well-ventilated room.

Q. If someone refuses to follow these policies, what steps should the church take to enforce them?

A. Have a plan for such instances. While every interaction with people should reflect the loving character of Christ, each church should have a plan to deal with people who refuse to follow the rules. Remind the person that the church has a responsibility to protect everyone in attendance and following the current guidance from your conference, local governing authorities, and public health agencies is the best way for churches to provide a safe environment. A plan may involve two or three deacons at the entrance or entrances who may intercept or remind worshipers of what is required. A colorful sign that highlights the requirements. A plan should be in place for a worshiper who may have forgotten to bring a mask. In extreme circumstances, it may become necessary to discontinue the service and dismiss the worshipers to protect the safety of the participating congregants. Nevertheless, the first attempt will be to persuade people many to cooperate fully even if they disagree.

Q. Does singing pose a higher risk of spreading the virus?

A. Yes. Because the most common form of virus transmission is from droplet spread and singing which is typically done with more volume and force than talking, increases the distance that droplets can be spread. This is true even when wearing a face covering. It is better to err on the side of caution and refrain from singing during the early stages of reopening.

Q. Should we discontinue the distribution of bulletins, Sabbath School quarterlies, or other material at church?

A. We recommend reducing or discontinuing distribution of materials as much as possible. Handling and sharing materials is another way for the virus to spread. It also requires more work to clean up after services and poses additional risk to those who are cleaning. Alternatives to paper bulletins are large screen and verbal announcements, as well as emailed updates or an emailed bulletin prior to service.

Q. Passing an offering plate is not recommended. What other options do churches have for collecting tithe and offering?

A. Many churches and conferences have instituted a variety of online and mobile giving options. Another option is to have a central offering drop-off container where people can bring their tithe and offering as they come into the sanctuary or as they leave. This should be monitored to ensure the safety of the funds collected and the security of the congregation.

Q. Should churches suspend communion and foot washing services?

A. Yes. ARM recommends continuing with the remote communion practices many churches have instituted during the stay at home phase. The way foot washing and communion services are traditionally conducted poses an increased risk for transmission of the virus. ARM recommends temporarily suspending this part of the service in person in the early stages of reopening.

Q. How do the lower levels of Sabbath School classes and VBS programs maintain social distancing?

A. A good guide for this aspect of our ministries is the guidance given to Daycare Centers, Child Care, and Education environments, as they more closely parallel the activities in our Children’s Ministries classes. Younger children are going to have a much harder time understanding and practicing social distancing. These are also the classes where there are normally more teaching aids shared between children. If you are not able to manage the expectations for these classes, suspending the younger division classes may be the best option during the early stages of reopening.

Q. For churches that rent their facility to a Sunday congregation or other outside groups, what policies should be in place before reopening occurs?

A. While renting our church facilities is a common practice for many congregations, it increases the potential for additional challenges when looking to reopen our church buildings. Issues you may want to address with rental groups fall into three categories:

  • Access to the Building – The building owner needs to advise the tenant that the church will not be made available and rent will not be collected in the event that a governmental entity has prohibited church services. This language may already be in your lease agreement. Your lease will determine when rent is collectible and may permit you to collect rent. In many instances, you may collect rent if you make the building available to your tenant and they choose not to hold services.
  • Disclosure of COVID-19 Diagnosis – Generally, a tenant is not required to inform the owner of a person becoming ill. As part of a written pandemic disaster plan that covers how to deal with a building outbreak or contamination, both the owner and the tenant will inform the other party if a member in their congregation tests positive for the virus. This type of mutual notification will prioritize the need for cleaning and can help minimize additional exposure. Information shared between congregations should include the date they were diagnosed with COVID-19 and what dates they attended in the two weeks prior to their diagnosis. This information may also be shared with public health officials if requested.
  • Expectations and Responsibilities for Cleaning – Unless otherwise stated in the lease, it should be the responsibility of the building owner for cleaning the building prior to use by either party. A specific plan should be developed to fulfil the CDC recommendation of cleaning during services for both congregations. This includes cleaning bathrooms and high-touch areas, such as faucets, door handles, water fountains, and countertops.

Some of these items may already be covered in your rental agreement. Work with your legal counsel determine what is covered and what is not and draft a letter to the pastor of your renting congregation outlining any additional or modified policies. This should be characterized as an addendum to the lease and should be signed by both parties and copies should be distributed to both parties.

Liability Insurance

Q. What is the potential liability to my organization, if a government authority mandates shutting down operations to minimize the spread of the virus, and a university or school, church or other does not cancel classes and continuous operations?

A. If it is mandated your organization must comply, any and all fines and penalties arising from not following the mandate would not be insurable and would be the responsibility of the organization.

Q. What is the potential liability to my organization by keeping my schools, and churches open.

A. The answer to this question cannot be fully answered as anticipating what someone could allege your organization should have done to prevent… A good test is “what would a prudent person/organization do.” It would be recommended to plan in advance for prevention and safety, watch what public schools in the area are doing, follow advice from the Center Disease Control, World Health Organization, and resources from Adventist Risk Management.

Source: Adventist Risk Management
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