Dear People of God in Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania:
Across our region, COVID-19 cases have begun to decline from the precipitous rates we saw this winter. The vaccine rollout, while still slow, has gained some momentum in both New York and Pennsylvania, and it seems as if the worst of the winter weather may be behind us. As a result, I have decided, in consultation with the clergy of our dioceses and the standing committees of the dioceses, to permit congregations to return to limited in-person worship beginning April 1.
As you will read in these updated guidelines, I strongly recommend that only clergy and laypeople who have been fully vaccinated lead in-person worship. This means that all worship leaders should have received either both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and should also have waited for two weeks for full immunity to take effect. Churches whose clergy have not been vaccinated, and who wish to worship in person, may either share services with churches whose clergy have received the vaccine, or invite fully vaccinated retired or non-parochial clergy to lead worship.
Congregations that regather in person must follow state guidelines for indoor and outdoor gatherings (New York guidelines and Pennsylvania guidelines). Currently, in New York these guidelines permit 33% occupancy for outdoor events and 25% of occupancy for indoor events. In Pennsylvania, current guidelines permit 20% occupancy for outdoor events and 15% occupancy for indoor events. On April 4, new Pennsylvania guidelines will go into effect, allowing for 50% occupancy for outdoor events and 25% occupancy for indoor events. Everyone present must wear masks at all times and maintain six feet of distance. Singing, whether by cantors, choirs, or the congregation, is not recommended, and no church employees, lay or ordained, should be expected to return to in-person worship or other work before they have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.
You have my full support if you decide that continuing to worship online is the best choice for your congregation. I will continue to host Sunday online worship with leaders from across the partnership until the Day of Pentecost, May 23. In making your decisions about returning to in-person worship, I commend to you the Georgia Tech Risk Assessment Planning Tool, which shows the risk level of attending an in-person event in any given location.
These new guidelines take effect on Maundy Thursday, but we should not expect in-person Holy Week and Easter services to feel “normal” this year. If congregations choose to offer in-person Holy Week services, they must forgo high-contact practices such as foot washing, agape meals, and kissing the cross. And if congregations choose to offer in-person worship on Easter Sunday, they will need to use an online reservation system such as SignUpGenius to ensure services do not exceed the modest capacities permitted in our states’ guidelines. Churches worshipping in person will also need to be prepared to turn away people who arrive without reservations. You may hold multiple services if you are able to clean and disinfect between each one.
Please consider carefully whether or not you are willing to undertake the work required to offer safe in-person Holy Week and Easter worship this year. If you choose to do so, I encourage you to collaborate with other congregations in your region to share the responsibility and increase the number of leaders who have been fully vaccinated.
This year of pandemic has been extraordinarily trying. At many times, it has been difficult for our churches to sustain the resolve to protect the most vulnerable among us. But across our partnership, there has not been a single known case of COVID-19 transmission among staff or church members in congregations that have followed our guidelines. There is no question that your faithful commitment has prevented illness and possibly deaths, and I am extraordinarily grateful to you.
While we are not yet safe from danger, we can reasonably hope that we are now through the worst of this pandemic. President Biden has said that if we continue to wear masks, practice social distance, and get vaccinated, we can hope to return to something like our normal lives early in July. In order to make that hope real, we must continue to be vigilant, especially when we gather in person. Please abide by these new worship guidelines so that we can continue our progress toward a post-pandemic world.
Whenever your congregation chooses to reopen, my staff and I are available to support you as you review the recommendations and requirements in this document, prepare your reopening plan, and consider how you might best collaborate to continue serving the people of God.
Thank you, as always, for your faithfulness to God’s mission in our region.