I participated in my second phone conference last Friday with South Carolina State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell along with clergy from all over our state to hear the latest data and projections on the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The truth is, I had to look harder this time than last time for the hope factor, partly due to the reality that we are in the midst of the uptick which has, to no one’s surprise, given our state the dubious honor of being on the most recent hot spot list of COVID-19.
The elected officials and the business community remind us that it is up to us to make our decisions since they refuse to mandate any more safety precautions.
Simply put, we are all on our own.
One of the most notable data points Dr. Bell told us was that there was a 200% increase in the infection rate for ages 18 to 25 and a 600% increase in ages 11 to 18.
She gave us many other facts, including her view that the main metric for opening houses of worship or other public places is a two-week decline in the infection rate. We are far from that goal.
Art centers, concert halls, movie theaters and other public arenas are all deliberating what they can do to survive.
Houses of worship have different issues to contend with in answering this question.
Houses of worship
Congregations should have appointed by now pandemic committees that will look at everything from potential budget shortfalls to how to reopen and when, as well as what restrictions to place upon clergy and congregants in public worship until the time when it is safe to begin to open the doors.
One of the most important issues she discussed was choral singing.
At this time, choirs are out of the question because this virus can linger in the air and with the force of many voices singing, the droplets that come out of mouths of singers with even more potential to infect than an individual talking.
She explained that this virus is spread by smaller than normal flu particles that remain suspended in the air in larger respiratory droplets in contrast to normal virus conditions. One singer on the pulpit may be tolerable, but a choir is a health hazard.
Let’s not forget that many houses of worship have Sunday schools for the children. Educators, clergy and their committees have to figure out different models, depending on the current situation of spiked infection rates, to spread out children and protect faculty in order to have classes. Dr. Bell recommended that all Sunday school classes refer to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control protocols on educational settings for more specific instructions.
Another important point she raised was that it was not the role or responsibility of the congregation to take temperatures or determine who is physically fit to enter services.
The role of the house of worship is to set up strict and clearly-defined procedures and protocols for managing traffic flow into the church or synagogue, have supervision to make sure that parishioners follow them, and to make sure that the facility is properly disinfected before and after the services.
Dr. Bell said that clergy and their congregational leadership should be more proactive in providing direction to our community, both inside our congregations and to the community at-large.
Moreover, she seemed to advocate a more aggressive posture toward those organizations and businesses that violate longstanding rules of social distancing and wearing masks.
In other words, I took from this conference call that Dr. Bell wants the religion community to consider not patronizing public places, including businesses, that disregard these protocols that are intended to save human lives.
Clearly this is a problem that DHEC is struggling with as it engages different communities throughout the state.
Finally, her greatest concern was anticipating the nightmare scenario this fall when the normal flu season arrives combined with the resurgence of COVID-19.
We all need to make sure we get flu shots as soon as is possible.
The silver lining I see is that technology today gives us lots of options that aren’t perfect but are effective in connecting our congregations in public worship and education.
This is a time to think outside the box. It is a time to think what is possible and to experiment with ways to engage congregants in services like Livestream and Zoom.
If possible, it is time to spend the money to provide resources in a new way. The challenge, especially for folks who are not computer literate, is to work with them to do what we can to make sure that our congregants know we are thinking of them and doing what we can to stay in touch — and to bring as much as is possible of our congregational family to them.
Rabbi Brad Bloom of Hilton Head Island writes on matters of faith.