New Recommendation on When to Consider In-Person Worship

This Monday the bishops of the Episcopal Church had a Zoom meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci to discuss the future of worship, given the Covid-19 pandemic. The hopeful news that he wanted us to share with you is that there is going to be an end to this pandemic; we will one day return to worship as we have known it. A vaccine and overall population immunity will make it so. Given that assurance, we can persevere in the coming weeks and months.

He told us that the most important things we can do right now are: wear masks, stay at least six feet apart, worship outdoors instead of indoors whenever possible, and avoid crowds. Interestingly, a crowd is not determined solely by the number of people present. For example, a large number of people outside, all ten feet from each other, is not a crowd, but can easily turn into one if they get near one another as they gather and leave.

He also said that the scientists are continuing to learn more information about Covid-19. We now know that 40–45% of people with Covid have no symptoms. Therefore, never assume that anyone is not infected. He also hopes that more data will soon be available on the role that ventilation might play in indoor worship.

Here in Arkansas I have been visiting a few congregations over the past eight weeks. For example, two Sundays ago I attended an outdoor Eucharist at St. Francis in Heber Springs and this past Sunday an indoor Eucharist at St. Paul’s in Newport. Both congregations did a good job in following the guidelines that Dr. Fauci outlined.

In the office I have also been searching for up-to-date information on the risks involved in catching the coronavirus. Covid Act Now publishes some very good information online. Its team is obsessive in its study of the data of how the virus is transmitted. In comparing its metrics with our own, if we are to stay at or below the suggested “medium” risk level, it appears that the recommendation of when to consider in-person worship should be when active cases in a county are below 14 per 10,000 residents Thus, my latest recommendation is that you consider in-person worship if your county has a seven-day average active infection rate of less than 14 per 10,000 residents. Please note that if the rate is above 35, your county is extremely risky for virus transmission. The diocesan website will report the county numbers each week.

No matter whether you meet indoors or outdoors, follow Dr. Fauci’s advice: stay masked, stay at least six feet from other people, meet outdoors if at all possible, and never allow a gathering to turn into a crowd. And remember as well, as he reminded us, that this pandemic will one day pass, and we will be able to return to the worship in the Episcopal tradition that has fed so many people for so many generations.

Larry Benfield
Bishop of Arkansas