UPDATED 3/13/2020 1 p.m.:
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said on Friday morning that he was "issuing guidance" requiring cancelation of large public gatherings of over 250 people. The bishops of the Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo canceled all Masses until further notice. New Life and St. Andrew both said Friday that in-person services were suspended this weekend.
As the novel coronavirus spreads in Colorado and “social distancing” becomes a more common tool to combat its spread, it’s becoming clearer that people of faith will face major disruptions in their social lives and rhythms.
Bishop Kym Lucas of the Episcopal Church of Colorado asked all clergy and lay leaders in vulnerable congregations like Denver, Pitkin and Eagle counties, where COVID-19 is most prevalent, to suspend public gatherings this weekend until April 1, and for other congregations to suspend gatherings starting next week. She said people over 60 and those with fragile health conditions should not attend services this weekend either.
“I am NOT calling us to cancel church,” Lucas wrote in a letter to clergy and lay leaders Thursday evening. “The Body of Christ is not reduced to where we go and what we do on Sunday; in these days we are called to be church in a new way.”
Lucas said she recognizes that for some congregants, the church is a social outlet and that those who are most vulnerable to coronavirus are also the most vulnerable to loneliness and isolation.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said during a Wednesday news conference that he’s in talks with faith groups throughout Colorado about how to appropriately respond to the virus. He said those groups should tell their attendees to wash their hands and be vigilant, especially if they’re older.
“We’re encouraging all of our faith leaders to encourage elderly parishioners and those who are facing chronic ailments to consider not attending physically,” Polis said. “We have seen faith-based presence as a vector in at least a couple instances in this country as well as in other countries.”
Elsewhere, the Archdiocese of Seattle canceled all Masses Wednesday after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee prohibited large gatherings. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear asked churches to cancel worship services this weekend. Earlier this week, the Italian Bishops’ Conference suspended Masses in the country until April 3.
For many spiritual people, worship services are a place to find peace and connect with the community. Pastor Brady Boyd of New Life Church in Colorado Springs said times like these, with added stress and anxiety, are the times people need to come to church.
“The last thing that people who are wrestling with anxiety and fear need is isolation, right? Unfortunately, this coronavirus is encouraging people to isolate themselves and sometimes that’s not good for mental health,” Boyd said. “That’s one of the reasons we have been very hesitant to cancel anything.”
Prior to a fire Wednesday night, Temple Emanuel in Pueblo had already canceled its Purim Megillah reading and carnival this weekend and its community Seder on April 9 to kick off Passover.
“We’re particularly concerned about our elderly folks, which includes me and some of us have compromised immune systems,” said Mike Atlas-Acuña, the president of Temple Emanuel’s board of directors. “We’re trying to avoid crowding into the small space and having a lot of people in a small area.”
The Archdiocese of Denver told people to limit touching during Mass and isn’t giving out the Blood of Christ during communion. They’ve also told parishes to remove Holy Water from entrances and have hand sanitizer available.
“As Catholics, it's kind of taught to us from a very young age you have to go to Mass every Sunday but you know in times like this, and really in any flu season, if you are sick, it's actually an act of charity to stay home,” said Archdiocese spokesman Mark Haas.
He added that parishes need to keep in mind that for some folks, the church is their only source of community engagement.
“Stay in contact with your community in other ways,” Haas said. “Be sending extra messages to people to be giving them spiritual guidance on things that they can be doing at home to make sure that there aren't people out there that are completely isolated during a time like this.”
The Archdiocese hasn’t been in direct contact with Polis about suspending Mass, Haas said. But church officials are closely following health officials’ and Centers for Disease Control guidance. He said depending on how COVID-19 continues to unfold in Colorado, the Archdiocese could cancel Masses before direct orders come from the state.
Deacon Rob Lanciotti of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Collins said parishioners are concerned but he doesn’t want people to panic. He worked for the CDC for 29 years as a virologist and compared the coronavirus outbreak to West Nile in 1999. He said he thinks closing schools and large public events are mostly precautionary measures that help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“There's a middle road there where we can do the right things but not panic and overreact and that's what we really hope for everyone,” he said. “There's always a line between how much can we prevent but how much does it impact your life? And I think so far people are doing pretty responsible things.”
Services at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch haven’t been canceled either but church leaders are also encouraging Methodists to stay home if they feel sick and to wash their hands.
Kendall Kridner-Protzmann is a pastor of congregational care and said the church is trying to stay on top of debunking misinformation by reassuring congregants about what health officials know and don’t know.
“We're mostly just trying to be a non-anxious presence,” she said. “There's so much concern right now and I think the best thing that we can do as a church is to continue to be a safe place for people to come and find calm and find God’s peace.”
How is your faith community handling social distancing? Let me know by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.