CORONAVIRUS

Iowa churches welcome back worshippers - close to God, but distant from each other

Chairs are set up in groups 6 feet away from each other during a rehearsal Thursday at First Assembly of God in Cedar Ra
Chairs are set up in groups 6 feet away from each other during a rehearsal Thursday at First Assembly of God in Cedar Rapids. Churches are allowed to reopen to in-person services under a governor’s order, which requires reduced capacity and social distancing. At First Assembly of God, about 200 regular attendees received tickets to test its social distancing and sanitizing protocols this Sunday. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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After two and a half months of meeting virtually, Antioch Christian Church in Marion is ready to welcome its 1,900 attendees to worship in person June 7.

The building has been “sterilized and scrubbed down,” Pastor Greg Johnson said. Every other row in the sanctuary has been blocked off, and people will be asked to leave three seats between themselves.

“As Christians, we prayed about it for a long time,” Johnson said. “There comes a time where people being social creatures ... need to get back together and long to get back together. We feel the time is right and as people feel comfortable (church attendance) will continue to build.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a proclamation April 29 no longer prohibiting in-person spiritual and religious gatherings. Churches, synagogues and other religious organizations still must ensure social distancing, increased hygiene practices and other health measures to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus, she ordered.

At the time, many religious leaders across Iowa questioned the governor’s decision to so soon permit in-person religious gatherings, even under the social distancing guidelines. However, a month later, churches have established social distancing guidelines for their buildings, enhanced cleaning routines and modified services to allow people to worship together in-person, and hopefully prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As Antioch reopens, its plans to hold children’s Sunday school, meeting with no more than 10 children per room, Johnson said. Crayons have been removed, markers will be cleaned after use and surfaces will be routinely cleaned to prevent the spread of germs, he said.

When children are dropped off at Sunday school by their parents, volunteers will watch to see if a child is coughing or otherwise possibly sick, Johnson said.

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Symptoms of the virus can appear between two and 14 days after exposure to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When asked if he was concerned about asymptomatic children spreading the coronavirus in Sunday school, Johnson said, “I don’t know how to answer that. ... We’re going to trust the Lord for the rest of it. We can only do our part.”

The Archdiocese of Dubuque announced this month that parishes would be able to begin gathering for Mass again starting Saturday and Sunday.

Father Philip Thompson, with Saint Pius X Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids, who is a member of the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s priest council, said he was surprised by the news.

“Certainly I have mixed feelings,” Thompson said. “I know people have missed receiving Holy Communion during these last two and a half months. They’re anxious to get back to be able to do that, and yet the risk of the virus still is very present. ... The church really requires us to participate fully in the Eucharist, and we can’t do that by sitting at home and watching it on a computer screen.”

Saint Pius X is resuming Mass at 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and at 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. Sundays.

Every other pew has been marked off and people who do not live in the same household will be asked to keep 6 feet of distance between themselves and others. Everyone at Saint Pius X 2 years and older will be required to wear a mask.

People are welcome to come up and accept communion, but only the host — the bread representing the body of Christ — will be served.

Thompson said the church, which is able to seat 850, will seat only about 400 for now with social distancing. If the church is at capacity, greeters will turn people away at the door.

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Thompson “readily” admits that if there is a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Linn County, the church will shut down again, he said.

First Assembly of God in Cedar Rapids plans a “soft opening” Sunday. About 200 regular attendees received tickets to test its social distancing and sanitizing protocols.

The sanctuary will have limited seating, providing only 30 percent of normal capacity, and the church has added a third service. No children’s ministries are being offered at this time, and families will sit together.

People will not be required to wear masks, but it is “more than welcome,” said First Assembly Pastor Brian Pingel.

“We’re going to outdo each other in showing honor,” Pingel said. “We’re encouraging grace and love. People are ready to connect with each other and be in each other’s presence. We’re going to trust people to be adults.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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