Almost all of the Province of Ontario has now moved to stage three of reopening. Unfortunately, while there is a great deal of information available for businesses, there is much less information available for worshipping communities. This article is an attempt to synthesize what we do know from the documents that are available to us.
In stage three, indoor gatherings are now permitted. Places of worship are not explicitly named, but, convention centres, libraries and other public places are, making me believe that churches can carefully reopen to other non-worship activities under these current rules. This could include congregational activities, committee meetings, bible studies and other gatherings, as well as church rentals.
Worship Service Guidelines
Thus far, most of our conversations have revolved around worship. As a reminder, at the present time congregations are permitted to resume worship, but are limited to 30% of the sanctuary’s/room’s physical capacity alongside the requirement of 2 metre physical distancing and the wearing of masks. This continues to be the stated limit for worship participation, even if other indoor gatherings of up to 50 people are now permitted. As well, regular childcare and children’s programming are not permitted.
This summarizes what the city of Toronto has said about worship gatherings:
The following services are to be suspended:
- Communion and other close contact activities as advised by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
- All social gatherings, including before or after the service, as advised by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
- Food services.
- Regular childcare and children’s programming.
- Indoor singing, choir service and use of wind instruments.
- Sharing and distribution of materials and objects such as books, communion objects, microphones, prayer mats, prayer shawls, water, chalices.
- Use of holy water stoup/rites.
- Passing of collection/offering plates.
(The full document can be found here: https://www.toronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/978e-COVID-19-Guidance-for-Places-of-Worship.pdf, (revised Aug 5, 2020). It is consistent with the Government of Ontario guidelines which can be found here: http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/pro/programs/publichealth/coronavirus/docs/advice_religious_services.pdf )
Considering Other On-Site Activities
Before resuming other activities held within the church building it is worth asking a few questions. These are the questions the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches are asking their congregations to consider before taking any action. The full document can be found here: https://onmb.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/onmb-reopening-strategy-guidelines.pdf.
- What compelling reason do we have to reopen physically?
- What options should we consider?
- Should we simply open when the Ontario Government opens the group restrictions to a particular number?
- What do we need to consider about how our people are feeling and thinking? Staff, volunteers, attendees.
- Should we consider a survey to our congregation?
- What questions are most helpful to ask?
- What learnings from doing church differently in the past couple of months needs to be brought into a physical re-opening?
- In light of the probability that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue for the short to medium term future, how do we prepare for that part of our future?
- When processing physical re-opening, who are the people responsible for that task? Staff? Board? A task force?
- What’s the wise thing to do?
- What about our Liability and Insurance? Have we checked with our policy? Are we protected/covered?
Our churches are home to more than worship with our buildings used for mid-week church programmes by community groups and also renters. Those responsible to make decisions regarding which groups will be allowed to return to the building, when they may restart, and under what conditions will need to consider both the needs of the group as well as the risks involved, balancing one against the other. All activities may not be re-introduced at the same time, with some group activities posing risks significant enough that they will have to stay on hiatus for the foreseeable future. Other groups may need to reconsider aspects of their activities to comply with the protocols set by the church and government before they will be allowed to restart.
As sessions and boards consider these questions, the question of what is best for the whole church must be paramount. Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should do it.
Once your church determines it is safe and helpful to allow mid-week activities to begin meeting once again in the building, protocols must be put in place. All groups will need to follow these guidelines for physical distancing; set-up, temperature taking, tracking attendance (contact tracing), cleaning and disinfecting, regardless of whether they are a church group or a non-church group. One question of particular importance is the question of who will be responsible, knowing that ultimately the church itself bears responsibility for all activities that happen within the building? Will each group keep their own records, or will the church require that these records be stored in a safe, locked file at the church for follow up contact tracing? When it comes to cleaning before and after each gathering who will do this? Will it be done by church volunteers or individual group volunteers, or will all cleaning be done by a church staff caretaker or cleaning service? In all cases explicit training and record keeping will be crucial. While insurance companies do not seem to have written COVID exclusions into their policies at this time, if congregations are going to move to reopening you will need a paper trail.
In all cases, training and the enforcing of such protocols must happen. For some this may cause strife. This could include individuals who may feel that they aren’t trusted to do what is being asked of them, or that somehow you are questioning their ability to follow the protocols by requiring their participation in a training session. This is not an area you can compromise on; attendance at a training event must become a condition of each group’s re-starting. It needs to be specific (do you wipe under the seat or only on top?), it needs to be consistent, and responsibility for each protocol must be assigned to a named person(s). Simply stating that a member the group will…. is not a sufficiently clear statement.
In terms of outside groups, with the possible exception of cleaning, it is best to make the group responsible for oversight of these matters. A representative of the group should be responsible for keeping the lists and observing the protocols. I would strongly suggest that any outside group wishing to re-start at your church be required to sign an addendum to an existing contract spelling out these responsibilities and expectations. This would also be a very good time to reconfirm that the groups carry appropriate insurance and follow our Leading With Care policy. In terms of cleaning, it may be worth requiring that groups pay a rental supplement to cover professional cleaning rather than the church relying on spoken assurances, but this would depend on the circumstances of the church and the group.
This is what one insurance company has said about third party groups: (Marsh Insurance)
- Before reopening, the church must set out guidelines/protocols to have in place for the general public (following government advise and EIO bulletins – this may include having third parties tested dependent on Government guidelines for their operations like childcare for example) and another set of written guidelines/protocols for third parties renting the facility.
- The Guidelines should be presented in the formal written document. The formal documentation should include the following; sanitization (which is being done by the volunteers and employees), screening of guests/employees/volunteers, maintaining social distances, hand washing, and volunteer training and safety management. The guidelines should cover all areas of the property, bathrooms, common areas and who is responsible for cleaning these areas, etc.
- Advise each third party the onus is on them to ensure their employees are following the guidelines.
- The guidelines/protocols should be precise and clear for each third party to outline their responsibilities
- The guidelines/protocols should be written down and a copy must be provided to each third party for their signature of the agreement. This puts the onus back to the third party renting the facility to follow the guidelines or they may be negligible if a loss occurred.
- Please request proof of insurance from the Third-party. Also, a certificate of insurance should be requested, adding “XXXXX Presbyterian Church” as Additional Insured under their insurance policy
- Any renters unwilling to sign the agreement should not be allowed to use the premises.
One special circumstance is Twelve Step and other addiction related groups. Even though they are anonymous, most of the time the leaders will know how to be in touch with the attendees. However, these groups will typically not turn anyone away and, care must be taken by the leaders to ensure that protocols are maintained and group sizes are not exceeded. I encourage your church to check with any group that meets in your church to determine if unknown people are welcomed, and weigh the risk of allowing groups to return to the building if you believe they are not compliant with your church’s protocols.
Another special circumstance is licensed daycares and schools. As of September 1, 2020 these are allowed reopen at full capacity within the Province of Ontario. If your church wishes to continue to renting space to a licensed children’s school or daycare I would encourage you to consult with and ask for clear direction from your local health unit and insurance company. As for any other children’s programmes such as church mid-week children’s and youth programmes, Guiding and Scout groups etc. I would be reluctant to initiate these without changes to the guidelines provided by the Province of Ontario.
Re-starting programs at churches can allow critical community ministries to resume. Likewise they can be an important source of revenue. At the same time, as I was preparing this, I read of a church (in the USA) where one congregant infected 84 people. That is not the kind of sharing we want, and frankly that is not the way you want your church to make the news. As you make these decisions, make them with the welfare of the whole church and community in mind.
PLEASE NOTE: This article has not been vetted by lawyers, health units or insurance companies. Please do your own due diligence!
More information can also be found here: https://ecclesiastical.ca/news-events/covid-19/