SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Department of Health (DOH) released new guidelines on Monday pertaining to the reopening of places of worship, allowing attendance of up to 25 percent building capacity or 100 congregants, whichever is smaller. County health departments must still give the green light for the resumption of services and the DOH will review the results of reopening with health departments 21 days later to consider whether it is safe to move to the next phase.
“Places of worship must … limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower. This limitation will be in effect for the first 21-days of a county public health department’s approval of religious services and cultural ceremonies activities at places of worship within their jurisdictions,” the document reads.
“Upon 21 days, the California Department of Public Health, in consultation with county Departments of Public Health, will review and assess the impact of these imposed limits on public health and provide further direction as part of a phased-in restoration of activities in places of worship.”
The guidance also stresses the importance of hand-washing, physical distancing, the use of face coverings, disinfecting common areas and work spaces, screening attendees for their temperature before entering and avoiding sharing items.
“Strongly consider discontinuing singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets,” the document further suggests.
“Modify practices such as limiting the number people reciting or singing, ensuring physical distancing greater than six feet between people, or opt to celebrate these practices outside with physical distancing, etc., if these practices cannot be discontinued.”
As previously reported, earlier this month, a coalition of churches in California announced their intention to resume in-person services on May 31, regardless of whether Gov. Gavin Newsom expressly gives the green light or not — with social distancing and other strict protective measures in place.
“If anyone cares for the people who walk through these doors, I do. I want them safe. I want them healthy. I have dedicated my life to serving them,” said Jim Franklin, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Fresno. “But as important as their physical health is, so is their spiritual health.”
“We fully support reasonable measures to help flatten the curve. As pastors, we take our responsibility seriously,” he continued. “The interest in public safety, however, must be balanced, narrowly tailored, to accommodate the opportunity for the public to exercise their religious freedom.”
Over 1,500 pastors have signed a “Declaration of Essentiality for Churches” in joining the intention to open their doors this weekend.
After the DOH issued new guidelines on Monday, the religious liberties organization Advocates for Faith and Freedom opined in a statement that the gathering limitations are still too narrow — and are “discriminatory” as the same size restrictions are not applied to general, nonreligious activities.
“Restaurants, for example, have no stated occupancy limitation but simply require that guests at tables be separated by six feet. Additionally, large stores continue operating without being limited in their occupancy from their normal levels,” remarked President Robert Tyler.
“While many churches will have no problem complying with the 100 person limit, some of our clients have churches that seat 2,500 people and more,” he noted. “Limiting places of worship to 100 people is arbitrary, unreasonable and unconstitutional. Our clients will continue to make plans to hold services on May 31, and many will not limit themselves to 100 persons.”
However, some clergy state that they plan to continue to offer virtual services at this time as they believe it is too soon to resume in-person gatherings.
“Putting people into life-threatening situations is not the way of Jesus,” Amos Brown, pastor of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and president of the San Francisco NAACP told The Mercury News.