When Do We Open Up Again?
The President recently demanded the states immediately open religious houses of worship calling them essential services. Let me assure you that isn’t going to happen here. We’ve gotten a recommendation from the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, that we be extremely cautious about opening, waiting until May of 2021!
Much as I worry about getting infected with the Covid-19 virus, what concerns me even more is someone in our congregation getting infected – especially someone who might get infected through use of our building. Many of us are over 60 or have health conditions that put us a much greater risk of harm to our health or even death from the virus.
I hadn’t realized how easily this virus can spread indoors until I read some research. When we are in a confined space for over an hour, we create the conditions for a greatly increased probability of infection. This is especially true when we are sitting close together then sing a song together. Infection rates in choirs have shown how quickly the Coronavirus can spread and cause harm and death.
The recommendation from the CDC and our insurance company is to give each person wearing a mask 113 square feet around them to create some degree of safety. In a 40×40 foot room, close to the size of Community Hall, that is seating for 14 people. Would it be possible to have Coffee Hour while maintaining 6 feet or more of distance? We certainly wouldn’t enjoy a potluck with people sitting at their own table all alone.
And would we take people’s temperature before we admitted them? Have a restroom attendant to sanitize it after every use? Would we be using the restroom one at a time? How many people could be in the kitchen? Would we be able to have any classes in the building? Religious education for children?
At this moment, even with some positive results with one vaccine candidate, it is still going to be a long time before enough people have had this disease or enough people have been vaccinated to make it safe enough to gather in the density we have in the past. And what about those who will not use vaccines? How will we negotiate that? This virus has spread far and wide enough, we may not be able eliminate the risk of it showing up in our congregation for the foreseeable future.
This could be at the leading edge of a sea change in the way religious organizations meet. Already some Asian restaurants have installed plexiglass dividers for restaurant tables. Texas saloons are putting up these dividers in hair salons. Maybe soon we’ll be seeing them in waiting rooms for doctor offices. I’m not sure what it is going to take to get my eyes checked or my teeth cleaned in the future. Adaptation is happening to reduce risk while permitting business to be conducted as we have in the past.
While we’ve lost a lot not being able to meet in the same room, sing together, and enjoy live music together, there have been unexpected benefits. We’ve made it much easier for those who are mobility impaired or far away from Albany to participate in our Sunday service. We’ve made it easier to attend meetings. We’ve lowered the barrier for visitors to come by and check us out. Thank goodness hearing the service in Community Hall hasn’t been an issue for a while now. We have lowered the carbon footprint for our congregation and kept a lot of carbon dioxide out of the air not driving back and forth.
What I hope we are discovering or connecting with more deeply is our identity as a congregation. Without our building, we are experiencing our community in our relationships and our shared values. Our congregation is so much more than the place we gather, the architectural features, and the furniture. Beautiful as our Sanctuary, Channing and Community Hall are, we together are so much more. I felt that remembering a member who died 10 years ago, May 25, Jay Gallagher … or Fred Schroeder, or Al and Ramona Weissbard, Charles and Ruth Estey or Sue Berzinis or Mildred Guffin or so many others who are part of the living memory of this congregation.
Since we’re stuck with physical distance requirements, infection precautions and the use of electronic communication for the near term, my question is how can we serve our congregational mission in this new environment? How will we satisfy our needs for community, spiritual growth and development, social activism, community service, and mutual support? What changes can we make that will keep our members and friends meaningfully engaged as we learn new ways to be together. What kind of meet ups might we organize? How could we create parties and social gatherings? Congregational Zoom Check-ins still a good idea? Maybe more opportunities for music?
Leah Purcell and Elizabeth Baldes are asking this question in a survey of parents and caregivers of children and youth. I’m working up a survey that will go out to our congregation. Leah and I are questioning all our old habits of how we do things. I’ll be offering three services this summer. Leah is considering what kind of programming might be offered. I’ll continue leading meditation on Sunday mornings all summer.
Please let us know your thoughts about other ways we can build community this summer and fall as we continue to protect each other and bend the infection curve down. The goal is to create a valuable and meaningful experience of religious community now, not deferring our satisfaction until we can resume what we did before.