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Carroll County issues guidance for places of worship as stay-at-home order lifted

As people of faith gather to worship together, in-person for the first time in nearly two months, the Carroll County Health Department advises they follow a set of guidelines to keep themselves safe.

Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday announced he would lift the stay-home-order Friday at 5 p.m., which includes allowing houses of worship to host people at up to 50% capacity (related to fire code or permits).

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Although they could host mass, St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster won’t be doing so for another two weeks. The parish is following the recommendation of the Archdiocese of Baltimore to wait until the weekend of May 30 to host public mass, according to Fr. Mark Bialek of St. John Parish.

That planned reopening will depend on recommendations by state and local governments, and whether there has been a spike in cases, he said. The parish is, however, now allowing congregants to worship in the church, according to Bialek. People can sign up for half-hour increments online, and staff will ensure health and safety guidelines are being followed.

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“We’re very very grateful for this opportunity," Bialek said.

On Friday evening, Bialek was preparing to provide drive-thru confessionals.

“It is so good to see our people,” he said. "We have truly seen the hunger for them wanting to return to church.”

Prior to the pandemic, St. John Parish typically saw 2,200 to 2,300 people in one weekend of services, according to Bialek.

And although the members have not been able to physically gather as a group, Bialek said they’ve stayed connected. The church has been live streaming mass every day on Facebook, holding youth group and meetings over video conference, and visiting parishioners on Sundays to bless them from a distance, Bialek said.

Recommendations for worship

For those gathering to worship this weekend, the health department has a list of recommendations.

Carroll County’s health officer, Ed Singer, issued a letter to religious leaders in the community May 14.

Singer wrote, “I am concerned that only following the requirements of the executive order is less than ideal to protect your congregants. I urge you to implement the recommendations issued by the Governor’s Office of Community Initiative that a workgroup of faith leaders across Maryland suggest ... .”

The recommendations from the workgroup include:

  • Limiting attendance to the number of people who can fit into a worship space while keeping a distance of 7 feet between people or family groups.
  • Wearing face coverings.
  • Taking non-contact temperature at the door (preferred) or at home.
  • Refraining from congregational singing (congregational singing may increase viral spread).
  • Sanitizing contact surfaces before and after worship.
  • Scheduling multiple, shorter services.
  • Continuing faith-based ministerial visits following public health guidelines.
  • Ensuring that ill congregants, or those exposed to someone who is ill, do not attend services.

Singer personally recommended further guidelines:

  • Live streaming of services.
  • Encouraging vulnerable members of a congregation to continue to participate virtually.
  • Holding religious services outside if at all possible.
  • Considering delayed opening until Phase 2, or at least until additional measures for safety can be included, such as: planned traffic patterns, adequate amounts of disinfectant, disposable masks for those who forget them, sanitizer, alternative music plans, signage to facilitate appropriate social distancing measures, safe processes for offerings, communion, and other actions that involve multiple people touching the same objects, and plans for congregants who become ill while at service.

Anyone with questions or concerns regarding the recommendations, or anyone who would like assistance in determining how to hold religious services safely, can contact the environmental health bureau at 410-876-1884.

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