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Utah's houses of worship to get new guidance on when services can resume

Posted at 4:15 PM, May 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-05 19:23:35-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Inside the vast Cathedral of the Madeleine, entire rows of pews have been taped off. Bishop Oscar Solis of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City said they are to ensure social distancing among faithful who come in. Right now, mass can only accommodate 20 people.

"Who doesn’t like to open this church for 300 people? But we need to come up with a plan," Bishop Solis said in an interview Tuesday with FOX 13.

Faith groups across Utah are expected to get new guidance from Governor Gary Herbert and the state's COVID-19 task force on how they can re-open for services. FOX 13 is told adjusted guidelines specifically geared toward houses of worship will come on Wednesday, likely in the form of an executive order from the governor. Houses of worship are seen as potential "hot spots" for the novel coronavirus to spread given that they bring large crowds together in one area.

Bishop Solis said that as Catholic churches start to slowly allow for more people to attend services under government recommendations, there will be specific requirements -- including social distancing, face masks and even suspending of certain rituals that require in-person contact. He is even contemplating ways for people to "RSVP" for a spot to ensure crowds don't show up for services. Those who are vulnerable or in ill-health will be strongly urged to stay home.

"Use your prudence and common sense moving forward. Yes, there is an easing of restrictions, but always remember are we safeguarding the lives of the people? Are we safeguarding their health?" he said.

The largest faith in Utah -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- has not yet announced any plans on when or how it will resume services, or if there will be special guidelines. The faith suspended Sunday services at wards and stakes in March when the pandemic began ramping up.

The Episcopal Diocese of Utah said it had no plans to resume services anytime soon.

"It has become clear that it is impossible to forecast a date to safely resume full in-person worship. The virus does not answer to us. We answer to the virus," Bishop Scott Hayashi said in a letter to Episcopalians statewide. "How quickly or slowly the virus will recede largely depends on how we behave. Reopening while the virus is still spreading only gives it the opportunity to continue its upward trajectory. The Diocese of Utah will contribute to mitigating the virus, not spreading it. As your bishop, I find it is important we have a clear road map for the way forward, even without being able to predict a definite date to safely resume in-person worship and outreach."

Bishop Hayashi included a series of phased-in guidelines for re-opening similar to other faith groups.

Rabbi Sam Spector at Congregation Kol Ami said it was "to be determined" when their synagogue might re-open.

"Our most important holidays that bring about 1,000 people together are in September. On one hand, we would love for everybody to be together for that. On the other, putting 1,000 people in a room right now is a very scary idea," he told FOX 13.

Rabbi Spector said his congregation was fortunate to have some epidemiologists and health officials who have agreed to be a part of a task force on how they will re-open, when the time is right. In the meantime, they have been live streaming services for members to watch online.

"Traditionally in Judaism, we don’t use electricity on the Sabbath," he said. "We see that this is an extraordinary circumstance and Jewish law says the preservation of life overrides everything else, but we still want to keep people connected."

He said the online services draws hundreds of people logging on, which is something positive. A number of faith groups have launched online worship services. The Catholic Diocese broadcasts a live feed of mass from the empty Cathedral of the Madeleine on its YouTube channel; the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake has been posting audio of its services as prayer services have been suspended; evangelical churches are utilizing Facebook Live and Zoom chats.

Bishop Solis urged people to unite to help combat COVID-19.

"It is an invisible enemy and the antidote is something we never see. Love. Hope. Goodness. And God," he said. "Those are reflected in the good works of many people. The heroism of the front liners, medical and personal. Daily laborers in supermarkets, in farms, in places in our surroundings. That is the goodness, the love of God reflected."