California gives the OK for churches to reopen with limited capacity

California released new guidance on Monday for houses of worship to resume in-person services.

The state has finally given clearance for churches to reopen, but it's up to county public health departments to give the approval for in-person religious services and cultural ceremonies to resume. 

Now California's new guidance does not allow worship services to resume right away. It does, however, recommend that places of worship continue online services for those vulnerable to COVID-19, including older adults and those with comorbidities.

Once churches are given the OK from their county health department, they must limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower. The limitation needs to be in effect for the first 21-days. 

"Upon 21-days, the California Department of Public Health, in consultation with county Departments of Public Health, will review and assess the impact of those imposed limits on public health and provide further direction as part of a phased-in restoration of activities in places of worship," the state said. 

Among the many requirements outlined by the state, worshippers have to wear face masks, their temperatures will be taken upon arrival, there is no sharing of prayer books, and no passing of the collection plate. 

In addition, every congregation must establish a written COVID-19 prevention plan and train staff. Choirs are discouraged, but should be spaced more than six-feet apart and would also have to wear masks.

"We will make sure we will follow all rules and regulations to the tee because the last thing we want is to spread this," said Muhammed Chaudhry, vice-president of the Ahmafiyya Muslim Community Silicon Valley.

Health officials maintain that houses of worship are hotbeds for COVID-19 infection, even with social distancing measures in place. 

 "What people need to be prepared for is that worship is going to be different," said Michael Pappas executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. He was consulted by the state as it drafted the 10-page list of guidelines.

The guidelines come after pastors this month called for church reopenings by May 31, the day of the Pentecost.

They also come after public health officials in Mendocino and Butte counties report church services caused COVID-19 outbreaks in those communities.

Pastors from African American churches rallied at San Francisco Friday cautioning against opening up too soon.

"We reserve the right ourselves to determine the things we should do that will be in the interest of our people," said Rev. Amos Brown of Third Baptist Church.

California health experts say convening in these settings carries a relatively higher risk for transmission, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations. 

 "People are used to greeting one another with the exchange of peace that is common to a lot of houses of worship. A lot of worship is connectivity. So this is going to be a challenge for a little bit," Pappas said.