At this point, COVID-19 has infiltrated many aspects of our lives, including how we practice religion. Changes to religious services started earlier this month in various parts of the United States with confirmed cases of COVID-19, including New York City, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Religious gatherings, of course, get people close to each other — from sharing communion to kissing the Torah — giving the virus an opportunity to infect more people.
An Episcopal rector became the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Washington, D.C. — after he participated in services with about 550 people, shaking hands and distributing communion to congregants at Grace Church in Georgetown. (The church is now closed until further notice.) And then there’s New Rochelle, New York, which has the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in the United States and is currently part of a “containment area” with a one-mile radius around the town. At the center of this containment area is Young Israel of New Rochelle, the Orthodox synagogue where the rabbi and at least one congregant have tested positive for COVID-19.
This isn’t the first time a pandemic has gotten in the way of religious services. The 1918 Flu Pandemic is, to date, the most severe disease outbreak in modern American history, leaving 675,000 dead in the U.S., and causing a total of 50 million deaths worldwide. Dr. Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist and public health expert at Johns Hopkins University says that it had a major impact on churches in Baltimore city.
At first, Baltimore’s Health Commissioner, John D. Blake was hesitant to close places of worship, but as the flu spread, he saw no other option (though he did permit saloons to stay open). More than a century later, Schoch-Spana says that there are lessons we learned from that pandemic that can be applied to the current situation — including how religious gatherings function as support systems for many people. Because of the closures in 1918, the people of Baltimore found other ways to support each other without worshipping together in the same building, like providing meals or childcare for working parents — a strategy that can also work today. “There are ways that churches and synagogues and mosques can exercise their spirituality by helping others during the outbreak,” Schoch-Spana tells Rolling Stone.
We’re starting to see this, with religious groups cancelling in-person services in favor of livestreaming and making adjustments to longstanding traditions in order to help prevent and contain the spread of this coronavirus. Here’s how some churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are handling the outbreak and what that means for their congregants.
At first, people may have been skeptical about the severity of the outbreak, but at this point, it’s hard not to take it seriously. There are at least three confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Christ Church in Washington, D.C. — which includes the parish’s organist — and it’s been a wake-up call for other congregations. On March 3rd, 2020, the Catholic Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle issued directives for churches, including removing holy water from fonts, specifying that communion should be received in the hand instead of on the tongue, and that the communal chalice will no longer be used. The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. has enacted each of those safeguards, as well as stipulating that churchgoers shouldn’t hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer or shake hands during the sign of peace. “We are continually monitoring the situation with an interdisciplinary team, including health professionals,” a rep from the archdiocese tells Rolling Stone.
While most Christian churches aren’t cancelling services at this point, many are offering livestreaming so parishioners can attend virtually, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Even Pope Francis is opting to give his Sunday greeting and Wednesday address via video link, and will not be participating in his weekday private masses until at least March 15.
Other religions are also using livestreaming to reach their followers. Earlier this week, the Town & Village Synagogue in the East Village held services for Purim and according to Rabbi Laurence Sebert, there were a few hundred people in attendance, and another couple hundred livestreaming the event. “The idea is that as best as we can, it’s good for people to be in each other’s presence because the support and the connection that we need and at times of crisis is important,” he tells Rolling Stone. “And we’ll be prudent and cautious in doing that because we want to protect people’s health and wellbeing and not put anyone in danger.” If there is a confirmed case in the congregation or a governmental intervention requiring the synagogue to close, Sebert says that the plan is to gather a quorum of 10 people in the sanctuary, along with a cantor and rabbi, and livestream services so people could participate at home.
For those who choose to attend services in person, many synagogues have adopted a set of guidelines from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which emphasize the importance of having people who are ill stay at home. “Pikuah nefesh, protecting human life, overrides almost every other Jewish value,” the CJLS said in a statement. For example, the Town & Village Synagogue is requesting that congregants refrain from covering their eyes with their hands during the Sh’ma, and instead, just closing their eyes. And rather than touching and kissing the Torah during the processional, they should reach their hand toward the Torah and then touch their heart. The Orthodox Union has put out similar directives, including reminding congregants that missing even the holiest prayers is permissible if a person has COVID-19.
The Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America (AMJA) has taken a similar approach, noting that if mosques are ordered to close by their local department of health, people are permitted to pray jumuah at home until the restriction is removed. However, until such a directive is issued, the organization says that “it is not permissible for the masjids [mosques] and Islamic centers to suspend the congregational prayers and jumuah because of the spread of the virus in the United States.” Some mosques have closed in Seattle, where the CDC recommended that all gatherings of 10 or more people in at-risk communities (i.e., the elderly) be cancelled through at least March 21st. (There is an official restriction in place for gatherings over 250 people.) The city’s Downtown Muslim Association has decided not to hold congregational Friday jumah prayers for the next two weeks.
The AMJA has also left some of the prevention measures up to individual mosques. “It is permissible for the masjid managements to demand those with flu symptoms to wear masks during the congregational prayers,” the AMJA’s statement reads. “It is also permissible to assign a room for them or a designated area in the prayer hall, and to advise them to avoid handshaking with the other worshippers and follow the proper precautions to prevent the transmission of the disease.”
Regardless of which religion, if any, you practice, check with your local place of worship to get more information on how COVID-19 is being handled in your area. And when in doubt, stay home and try to find a livestream of a service.