Churches are included in the first phase of Governor Brad Little’s plan for reopening Idaho, and could resume in-person worship services starting this Sunday with proper social-distancing rules in place. Many will have their doors open and say they can operate safely, while other faith leaders disagree.
More than 130 local faith leaders met via zoom with Governor Brad Little two weeks ago. Pastor Robert Frazier of Boise’s Redemption Hill Church organized that meeting.
"We talked a little bit with him about what we've been experiencing with the stay home order," Frazier said. "We've prayed for him and his family and his administration."
During the call, the governor did not commit to lifting the restriction on houses of worship. That news came a day later.
"We've had a lot of conversations since then," Frazier said of his staff and fellow pastors. "We're kind of muddling through how to make that work."
The challenges are many.
Small congregations worshiping in large spaces could have an easier time staying six feet apart. Larger congregations are planning to limit attendance with ticketed reservations. Many churches meet in buildings they don't own, like school gyms. Those spaces remain unavailable.
"One of the biggest issues is kids," Frazier says. "We have a smaller congregation, about 115-120 people, but half of them are under nine years old."
Frazier said one idea is to meet in smaller groups in yards and garages for watch parties.
Elsewhere, faith leaders say they intend to usher families one at a time through entrances and exits, block or remove pews, require hand sanitizer and mask use. Some congregations are still planning communion.
Episcopal Bishop Brian Thom says the 26 churches in Idaho's Diocese will not resume in-person worship until at least May 24.
"Everything about church is contrary to social distancing," Thom quipped. "The sitting in tight quarters, the passing of the peace and the common cup."
"I have a weekly meeting with my clergy on zoom, and I thought they were going to be pushing to open but it was quite the opposite," the Bishop said.
The Episcopal Church in Idaho has good reason to be cautious. The parrish in Sun Valley was an early epicenter of the virus.
"It began in the choir," Thom explained. "Somebody from the choir attended a community event and then went to choir practice that week."
Singing is a key part of most any church worship service. The act also expels air and fluid droplets at a higher velocity than talking, according to MIT Fluid Dynamicist Lydia Bourouiba. Her research suggests six feet of distance might not be enough to safely occupy the same space while singing.
Thom said the concentrated outbreak got the church's attention. "We like music but we're not going to be singing for a while."
Once Idaho's Espiscopal Churches open their doors once again, the question of the eucharist— the bread and wine of communion — will be front and center.
"We're still in discussions about those things. But we're all very cognizant that the vast majority of our parishioners are in at risk groups by age and other conditions," Thom said.
"Folks really missed communion and it's spiritual for them. But since community is really what we're all about, then we have to be really careful not to become victors ourselves; not to have another flare-up like in a choir or in a bible class."
The community aspect is also what’s driving many worshippers back to the pews, said Redemption Hill’s Pastor Frazier.
"I think that most people see their faith as an indispensable part of who they are and they're going to take whatever option they can to continue. Being together is important and we want to see that happen," he said. "But at the same time, if we have to wait a little while longer, we're happy to do it."
Churches say anyone not feeling well or in a high-risk demographic should still stay home. Church leaders said live streams and digital worship opportunities will continue even as sanctuaries reopen.
One thing most faith leaders had in common? They like the ability to decide what’s best for their own congregations, but there’s a lot of pressure to make sure they get it right.
Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.
Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio
Member support is what makes local COVID-19 reporting possible. Support this coverage here.