BRISTOL, Va. — Days after a local health district warned about the spread of COVID-19 in the region’s churches, Kris Aaron filmed his weekly sermon Friday afternoon, which he’s done many times this year to help slow spread of the virus.
Aaron is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Bristol, Virginia, which airs its services each Sunday morning online.
The pastor is not a technical engineer or an epidemiologist, but he’s one of many area church leaders directing their congregations through the pandemic.
Earlier this week, the Mount Rogers Health District issued a dire warning that there have been multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 in houses of worship in the area. Recently, one outbreak associated with a church has recorded more than 40 associated COVID-19 cases, the district said.
The health district does not identify locations of outbreaks, but Dr. Karen Shelton, the district’s director, said it has occurred in multiple Southwest Virginia churches.
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“We value our faith communities and the support and encouragement they provide during these trying times,” Shelton said. “We want these communities to continue to be able to provide these important services, and implore both faith leaders and congregants to take steps to keep themselves and their communities safe.”
The district urges churches to hold gatherings outside rather than inside. It also asks churches to maintain social distancing and advises that those attending wear face coverings and practice good hand hygiene by washing hands often and thoroughly, or using hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available. Churches should also avoid passing objects between members of the congregation, the district said.
“Unfortunately, our houses of worship are not immune to either the spread or severity of COVID-19 disease,” Shelton said. “We look forward to working together with faith communities to keep everyone as safe as possible.”
Back in March, when the pandemic began spreading across the country, many area churches, including First Baptist Church, discontinued in-person services.
First Baptist already had a website and Facebook page, but they weren’t regularly updated, Aaron said. The pandemic led the church to update its online presence and begin sharing sermons. The church also uses Zoom to host meetings, Sunday school and choir practice. Positive messages have also been added to keep congregants and other viewers interested.
The church, at the corner of State Street and Virginia Avenue, briefly held in-person services for about four weeks in a row back in June and the early part of July. Typically, more than 100 people attended services before the pandemic, but it was down to about 40 when it returned in June.
But Aaron said he was concerned. It was difficult to know whether holding services was resulting in more COVID-19 cases.
“We noticed a significant increase in the number of local cases, and Ballad made an announcement highlighting the same thing,” Aaron said.
Out of an abundance of caution, the church switched back July 19 to virtual-only worship. It’s been virtual-only since then, and in-person worship will not resume until there is a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases, Aaron said.
“I didn’t learn how to have church services during a pandemic in seminary,” Aaron said.
Despite this week’s warning, some area churches continue to hold in-person services, but others have made changes.
“We are aware of the warning and have made adjustments,” said Robert Countiss, the senior pastor at Abingdon United Methodist Church.
The church is part of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, which was one of the first to ask churches to refrain from holding in-person services. A district committee developed a process to reopen churches, although most remain closed, depending on the number of cases in each county.
If below a certain number, Countiss said there will be indoor worship, but masks and social distancing will be required. Outdoor services maintaining proper guidelines are also being held, including at Abingdon.
“The leadership of the church, as am I, is very concerned about the spread of the virus, and we are prepared to do what is necessary to keep people safe and to model responsible behavior for our community,” Countiss said.
“Leaders throughout Holston have worked prayerfully and carefully to make plans allowing our churches to share God’s love while also keeping the community safe,” Holston Conference Bishop Dindy Taylor recently said in a statement. “As the situation around us changes, and as we learn more about the pandemic itself, and as we continue to look to medical insight, we continue to evolve our approach.”
Taylor recently allowed churches to conduct outdoor services.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Bristol, Virginia, continues to livestream and post video online, according to the Rev. Joe Dunagan. A very limited number of people may attend in person, he said.
Those who do attend services must wear masks and maintain distance, and there is no music other than a cantor and the organ.
“We keep a record of everyone who enters the building should there be a need to contact them,” he said. “I want to follow the recommendations and guidelines of local and state officials.”
St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Abingdon is open at about 25% capacity, according to the Rev. Boyd Evans. Everyone must wear masks for the entirety of the services, including Evans, he said.
Most St. Thomas members are watching services online. The church has also added an outdoor service on the front lawn at 8:30 a.m. Sunday mornings.
“I am concerned about COVID-19 in general, but I think we are being extremely cautious in our offerings here at St. Thomas,” said Evans.