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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Faith And The Virus: How Some Idaho Churches Are Handling Reopening

Dave Deckard, the pastor of the Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, is seen here giving a sermon online.

How can congregations safely congregate, if at all?

Places of worship all across the country have been wrestling with the question since the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

In a region spanning from Eastern Oregon to Jackson, Wyoming, Lutheran churches in the Northwest Intermountain Synod ECLA put together a task force to help figure out how they could meet in person.

That included pastors as well as congregants with backgrounds in public health to develop a plan. The group in southern Idaho was chaired by Jim Girvan, a former dean of Boise State University's College of Health Sciences. 

At first, he said the task force considered keeping churches closed. 

"If we wanted to make sure everybody is safe, we should suspend it until there's a proven vaccine," Girvan said. 

The risk of spreading the virus is significantly higher indoors, especially with poor ventilation. And singing further boosts the chance of transmission.

But the task force knew that some congregations would still want to hold in-person services when the state's phased reopening allowed them. So it stalled any reopening until July 19 and put together 36 pages of recommendations, checklists and resources for those churches.

Still, when Idaho Gov. Brad Little gave the green light to churches as part of Phase 1 of reopening on May 1, Girvan's task force was floored. They felt it was too soon.

"We were looking at that, and going, 'Wow, you've gotta be kidding me!'" Girvan said.

So for now, all Lutheran churches in that group are staying closed, like Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Boise, Idaho, where a major COVID-19 resurgence is happening.

Dave Deckard is pastor of that church, and he said its decision to stay online came down to this: "Do we exist to care about ourselves as an institution and support ourselves? Are we the center of the universe? Or are we here to do something good amongst the people around us. And we're firmly in the latter camp."

Credit Madelyn Beck / Mountain West News Bureau
Mountain West News Bureau
St. John's Cathedral is located near downtown Boise.

Meanwhile, in downtown Boise, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is holding mass inside seven days a week. On a recent Friday morning, Jose Rodriguez was leaving mass, grateful he could be in the cathedral after the state's shutdown a few months earlier. 

"We truly believe in the presence of Jesus, he's truly present in the mass," he said. "We really missed it."

He likens online services to watching a ball game on TV versus in person. 

"It's just so much more when you're physically there," he said. "It brings it up to a different level."

Rodriguez said he felt safe, saying that sanitizer was available and that every other pew was left empty to make sure people distanced. 

As congregants filed outside, most were either wearing masks or holding recently worn ones. 

St. John's is following recommendations of the Catholic Diocese of Boise. Gene Fadness is the diocese's communications director, and he said the bishop had to figure out what was best for his community while respecting people's opinions. 

"We have people who on one end are saying, 'We need to open churches up, we need to have faith that God will protect us, and we don't need to listen to the government,'" he said. "And then you have those on the other end that say, 'Lock everything down, no public worship at all, we shouldn't be having mass, period.'"

The bishop gave Catholics a pass on having to go to Sunday Mass, Fadden said. But churches are staying open, following the diocese's recommendations, like regularly disinfecting facilities, providing sanitizer and asking congregants to wash their hands.

However, the diocese didn't limit singing inside, which we know can cause superspreading events. And while it recommends masks, it doesn't require them.

Credit Photo provided by Robbi Sherwin
Before the pandemic, Rabbi Cantor Robbi Sherwin would sit in coffee shops for her "office hours," but she's since had to move a lot of her communication online.

For Rabbi Cantor Robbi Sherwin, who leads the Wood River Jewish Community in central Idaho, "Religion and medicine, they have to go hand in hand."

The organization has lost members to the virus, and its congregation is currently meeting online. But Sherwin said not all of their rituals can easily be done over a computer screen. For example, she has to sound the shofar during the month before Rosh Hashanah. Blowing into the trumpet-like instrument made from a ram's horn could spread the virus in a crowd.

"So I'm going to do some pop-up shofar," Sherwin said. "I'm going to let people know when I'm in a neighborhood, we'll distance, and I'll bring the shofar to them."

All the while, she's staying in touch with her community, trying to keep up with the science and hoping for a vaccine.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau at Boise State Public Radio.