Dear People of God in Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania:
In the last two months, thanks to the increasing availability of effective vaccines against COVID-19, both cases and deaths have declined steadily across our region. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control relaxed its guidance for fully vaccinated people, and state and local authorities are also reevaluating existing restrictions.
Accordingly, we have prepared these guidelines to help congregations in our diocesan partnership navigate this transitional time. COVID-19 is not yet behind us, and risk remains for our children and youth and for those with health conditions that make vaccination inadvisable. As Christians, we must err on the side of welcoming and protecting those who remain vulnerable, while at the same time celebrating the progress we have made toward regathering our communities in the ways we have hoped to do for so long.
So that our congregations remain welcoming to everyone, I invite you to worship and gather outdoors whenever possible and recommend that you require masks and social distance indoors until all children and youth have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. However, recognizing that each of our congregations will face different questions and challenges during this transition, I would like each congregation’s vestry or bishop’s committee to work with their clergy to develop masking and social distancing requirements that fit your congregation and context. Once you have had a chance to discuss this issue and craft a plan for your congregation, please send it to Canon Vanessa Butler in my office. Partnership staff and I are available if you would like to consult with us before making your decisions.
The only remaining requirement in these guidelines is that programs for children and youth be held outdoors whenever possible, with masks and at least three feet of social distance. In July, after more of our young people, ages 12 and up, are fully vaccinated, we will be able to relax those standards. Programs for children under age 12 will continue to require appropriate masking and social distancing for the foreseeable future.
A final word for those of you who have not yet been vaccinated:
The pandemic has been long and hard, and although I know that at times it has been difficult to know whom to trust or where to turn for reliable information, I urge you to believe the science behind the vaccines. In clinical trials, all of the vaccines being administered in the United States are extremely effective in preventing both death and serious illness—the kind that can land you in the hospital. Although it may seem as if these vaccines were developed quickly, the underlying research that makes them possible has been two decades in the making, and we can rely on it. I was vaccinated as soon as my turn came, and I hope you will choose to do the same. In the last 14 months, we have lost too many people to this terrible disease, and too many others are still battling its aftereffects. By getting vaccinated, you can help make sure that we do not lose anyone else.