Eagle County churches seek guidance on indoor worship as the weather turns colder
Just like restaurants or music venues, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has been a moving target for parishes big and small
Over the summer and into the fall, as his congregation has worshipped in the open air at 4 Eagle Ranch near Wolcott, the Rev. Craig Smith said he has preached to a number of visiting pastors vacationing in Eagle County.
A lot of them have been in tears at the end of the service, he said.
“I just check to make sure it wasn’t that the sermon was that bad,” joked Smith, who is the lead pastor at the non-denominational Vail Church on U.S. Highway 6 in Avon, one of the largest parishes in the valley. “But they say, ‘This is like the first time we’ve worshipped in person. Our own church can’t even gather right now.’ And, you can tell, there’s something moving about it. We’re grateful for technology, no question, but I think being in person with people of faith is a special thing.”
Just like restaurants or music venues, navigating the COVID-19 crisis has been a moving target for parishes big and small throughout Eagle County. Stay-at-home orders in the spring forced parishes to go to virtual services before the easing of restrictions allowed for limited in-person gatherings. The warmer months allowed for larger in-person services in outdoor settings.
But as the air turns colder, local congregations are trying to navigate the challenge of adhering to public health guidelines while still being able to gather and worship together.
On Friday, nearly a dozen clergy members who lead parishes throughout the valley met virtually with Eagle County officials to pose questions and try to gain clarity on what the fall and winter months will look like.
Rev. Dan Matney, the lead pastor at New Life Assembly of God in Avon, helped organize the call. In an email to county officials, Matney wrote: “As winter rolls in, and people will be shut in and isolated more, resulting in our mental, physical and spiritual health being even more at risk from the isolation and lack of socialization and emotional support, it seems to me that some reasonable variances on safe church attendance would be helpful and in order. As you know, our churches support critical behavioral health needs in our valley.”
One size doesn’t fit all
The conversation with Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director; Jeff Shroll, the county manager; and Morgan Hill, the environmental health manager, centered on whether parishes that are currently worshipping indoors with as many as 100 attendees will have to halve those numbers as the county moves into uniformity with the state’s public health dial.
Eagle County’s current public health order, based on key disease transmission performance indicators, allows for indoor gatherings of 100 and outdoor gatherings of 175 with social distancing protocols in place. But Eagle County, along with counties around the state, is in the process of transitioning to the statewide standard — and in doing so, that indoor number would be capped at 50, based on current trends in the county.
County officials are willing to work with congregations to maintain current numbers, Harmon said, acknowledging that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t necessarily work for spaces of different sizes.
“This actually came up in some of our organized sports conversations over the past two weeks because not all gymnasiums are necessarily created equal,” Harmon said. “They’re not all the same size, right? So you could have an elementary gymnasium, which doesn’t have any bleachers or anything like that. And then you’d have a high school gymnasium that comes only with bleachers but has a stage where you can ensure that adequate spacing I think for any performers or speakers.”
County health officials are hopeful, Harmon and Hill said, that if current transmission trends improve, indoor gathering sizes would be able to reach 175 — given that there’s adequate spacing for a bubble of 6 feet for each person or family cohort in a particular worship space.
Hill acknowledged that local restaurants have had similar inquiries, noting that some can operate at half-capacity and still seat more than 50 diners indoors. And in those types of instances, Hill said the county is willing to provide some leeway.
The same would apply to congregations that have the space to accommodate more than 50 congregants.
“We’ve only got maybe this narrow window, so rather than you having to scale back so dramatically, I think that’s why we’re not giving you a firm 50 versus 100,” Hill said.
More people, more problems
Of course, for large congregations like Smith’s, the math is harder. Pre-pandemic, Smith said the Vail Church would have as many as 700 worshippers between four services on a Sunday.
The Vail Church went to strictly online services during the stay-at-home orders in the spring, and then was able to reopen in a limited capacity at its Avon campus. The invitation to worship under a large open-air tent at 4 Eagle Ranch starting in early July has allowed for as many as 350 people to worship on a Sunday between two services.
But the church can’t stay outdoors much longer.
“At this current point, we’re committed to stay at the ranch through October,” Smith said. “We’re hoping that we can all bear the mornings out there. The ranch has been super gracious. They have heat, but we have to keep the doors open and the windows open. They have these kind of swinging doors open so that we can consider that an outdoor space.”
Once November hits, however, Smith said his congregation will have to do the best it can, per public health guidelines, to safely seat as many worshippers as possible between its sanctuary and gymnasium at its Avon campus.
“This will probably have a pretty significant impact in terms of our in-person capacity,” he said. “We anticipate that we’re going to probably have to limit the number of people that have been able to attend all summer outside and we don’t know how that’s going to impact the faith of the church over the course of winter.”
Politics in the pew
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches across the country have emerged as outbreak hotspots — from those that reopened cautiously to others that defied public health orders to hold large gatherings such as Easter Sunday services.
Among other notable national headlines, a Virginia pastor who vowed to keep holding services and preaching “unless I’m in jail or the hospital” died from the virus, while in Texas, nearly 50 people got sick after their pastor told congregants it was OK to hug again.
At the intersection of public health and religious freedoms, government officials who have warned against the dangers of large public gatherings have encountered resistance from religious leaders and legal challenges.
And Colorado has been no different. Gov. Jared Polis was sued in federal court last month by a conservative nonprofit on behalf of Andrew Wommack Ministries, a Colorado Springs-based religious outfit that defied state public health orders over the summer by hosting a bible conference for around 800 attendees that led to a COVID-19 outbreak.
A U.S. District Court judge last week denied the challenge, which sought an exemption from public health orders that limit religious gatherings to 175 ahead of Andrew Wommack Ministries’ plans to host a large religious conference starting Monday in Woodland Park. The challengers plan to appeal.
The lawsuit argued the state is “discriminating against religious gatherings with restricted numerical and capacity limitations that are not imposed on non-religious gatherings,” according to Liberty Counsel.
Matney, in an email to the Vail Daily, said local pastors have had to deal with the range of perspectives on the pandemic in their individual congregations.
“Each church sees this pandemic in a different perspective, and the individual members within each church see things in a different light,” he said. “For example, some of our church members see all of the masking and social distancing and sanitation efforts as overkill. Others feel we are not doing enough. Some will sit with their mask on during the sermon, others will not. Others have come back to church, many have not.”
What he’s attempted to do is try to navigate that range of opinions and have “respect for everyone, regardless of which side of the aisle or issue they are on,” he said. “And so, I’ve tried to teach everyone to wear the mask, maintain social distance, avoid shaking hands and initiating hugs, etc., out of respect for others who may not feel as confident as they do.”
“I try to set the example and I publicly encourage people to wear the mask, but I don’t insist on it,” Matney added. “I believe that a strict policy forbidding such practices and enforcing compliance is counterproductive to the spirit of love and respect and does more harm than good in both the short term and the long term. I know others disagree.”
Gathering sizes weren’t the only questions that pastors had for county officials. Another sticking point was requiring masks for worshippers inside when congregants weren’t singing, considering diners can take off masks in restaurants to eat.
Rev. Ethan Moore, the pastor at Trinity Church in Edwards, said local faith leaders have worked very hard to be compliant with public health orders, and that asking for variances to certain guidelines shouldn’t be construed as being resistant to public health advice. Instead, he said, faith leaders just want to see consistency in the directives.
“We deeply care about our people and the health of our valley, but differing standards are difficult to justify and explain to people,” he said.
Smith echoed those sentiments.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s been no different than businesses or any other sector here where the target keeps moving throughout the spring and summer,” he said. “When you’re trying to figure out how to gather people in a faith community, it’s just been a little tricky and exhausting, just depending on space limitations. A lot of our churches don’t have large, large campuses. Navigating kind of the polarization within our church community of just differing opinions on how we handle COVID, how we keep people safe. I think we’ve all been trying the best to adhere to, and keep our people safe and adhere to our county officials’ guidelines, while allowing for our people to have such a vital part of their life back intact.”
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