Planning for a Significant Outbreak, Churches – Covid


The following assumes that your church is in a region which has sustained local transmission of COVID-19 at a significant level. These are precautions for how to respond to a situation where there are dozens of people or more getting COVID-19 in your area.

Summary of Precautions

  • Buy significant quantities of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Masks are helpful but are not as essential as disinfectant materials.

  • Establish a single, controlled point of entry to your church which you can use to force congregants to wash their hands and check for disease symptoms.

  • Strongly discourage people with any sickness in their household from coming to church; the pastor or elders can visit later.

  • Eliminate non-essential activities at your church like social groups.

  • Communion is your highest-infection-risk element of the service. Avoid passing a communion plate, intinction, or a common cup. The safest way to take communion is in individual cups and pieces of bread, in small groups, at the altar.

  • Other personal-touch service elements like peace-passing, offering, or attendance books should also be restructured or suspended.

  • Put more space between chairs as feasible or encourage bigger seating gaps in pews.

  • Informal interpersonal contact at church and church fellowship time does not need to be cancelled, provided a few basic precautions are taken, like limiting food to individually-packaged snacks.

  • It is especially important for church workers to wash their hands fanatically, wear masks, and maintain good personal hygiene.

Should we cancel Physical church?

From President Walton: 

As thef Coronavirus continues to spread, and fear along with it, our hope remains in Jesus. The Psalmist reminds: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”  Psalms 139:16 NIV

We can be confident that God has this even in the midst of our inability to fully understand. Having said that, please pay attention to directives by Federal Authorities, as well as local authorities (police, mayor, etc.)

Only you know whether you should gather on a Sunday morning. If you are in fear, stay home. If people with compromised immune systems or other concerns, comprise your congregation, don’t hesitate to protect them. Use wisdom and judgment, with compassion and genuine concern. Above all, please take every precaution, clean thoroughly, avoid touching your face, be wise with coughs, sneezes, etc.,  and wash hands often! Thanks for your partnership and know that our united prayers are heard by our gracious God!


Cancelling church should be a last resort. The physical means of grace through communion and baptism, and the great comfort of person-to-person community at church, are vitally important. As long as a non-infected congregation and leader exist with access to a space where infection risk can be managed, church members should take every possible measure to maintain regular assembly together. Do not neglect the fellowship of believers. The information provided here assumes that your church intends to remain open as long as possible during the epidemic.

How should we manage our physical structure?

  • Cancel space-sharing activities. If social groups or clubs meet in your facility, cancel them immediately. If you do not cancel these activities, then force them to adopt the identical disease management procedures your church adopts.

  • Seal entrances from the outside. Fire safety rules mean you must maintain the possibility of exit; but you should prevent people from using side doors for entrance. Place some kind of sign on the door exterior reminding congregants not to use it. Limit entry into the church to one controllable point.

  • Run humidifiers, air purifiers, and air conditioning. Better air quality and higher humidity can reduce the severity of symptoms like coughing, which reduces spread, and can also reduce how long disease particles hang in the air. Very dry air causes water droplets to aerosolize quickly, making infection risks worse.

  • Maximize sunlight. There is some research that suggests sunlight and UV radiation can help kill germs. Open the blinds and get light in as many rooms as possible. Portable UV lamps can be an easy way to make disinfection easier as well.

  • Sanitize all surfaces frequently. Every surface touched by any person should be disinfected every day.

  • Seal off low-usage parts of the building. Keeping your space clear of infection is easier if you have less space to clean. So consider just putting up tape or other barriers to limit access to unnecessary parts of the building.

  • Purchase significant quantities of gloves, masks, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer for your congregation, enough to keep every attendee cleaned and masked, and every pew and hymnal and doorknob wiped down, for at least 6 weekend service schedules.

What should we do as congregants begin to arrive on Sunday morning?

  • Before anyone arrives, wipe down all surfaces like chairs, pews, hymnals, and door knobs with disinfectant wipes. As much as possible, prop open any doors you are allowing people to use in order to limit the need for touching. Scrupulously disinfect bathrooms.

  • Limit entry to ONE DOOR. At that door, post four healthy, low-infection-risk individuals as door managers, wearing well-fitting N95 respirator masks, surgical gloves, and clean, non-absorbent clothing.

  • Encourage congregants to arrive at church early, or in pre-established arrival cohorts. The door management process below will dramatically slow down how quickly people can get into the church. However, waiting in long lines creates a crowd which can itself spread disease. Thus, it is important that congregants arrive at a steady pace over an extended period of time, not all arriving 2 minutes before the service.

  • Your door managers should check every single person’s temperature using a handheld infrared thermometer. Anyone with a fever should be turned away. Options for turnaway vary: they could be sent home to await a house call by the pastor to deliver communion (see the section on pastoral visits below), or they could be sent to wait for communion in their car. Neither symptomatic individuals NOR THEIR HOUSEHOLD MEMBERS should be allowed into the building. Household-level transmission is by far the most common source of infection for COVID cases, and so even apparently-healthy family members pose a risk to the congregation. Congregants should be notified of this policy well in advance, and should be encouraged to stay home if they are at all sick.

  • Your door managers should compel anyone allowed into the building to thoroughly wash their hands using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Do not use mild hand-washes, herbal products without strong disinfectant chemicals, or essential-oil blends. Do not permit people with sensitive skin to avoid washing. I have sensitive skin and my hands hurt all the time these days because of the frequency of hand-washing: they can get over it, or even bring hand-lotion for themselves to apply after washing. Do not make ANY compromises on hand-washing.

  • Require all people to wear masks. Surgical masks do not do ANYTHING to prevent individuals from inhaling disease particles (although properly-fitting N95 respirators do). However, surgical masks reduce the spread of disease particles from coughs, and they also help remind congregants to keep a safe distance from one another and not to touch their own faces too much: eyes fluids, saliva, and mucus are the major disease-carriers for COVID, so reducing facial touching can save lives. The main purpose of masks is not to filter the air you breathe, but to reduce how much you spread.

  • Your door managers should keep detailed attendance records of every individual who enters through the designated entrance point and their measured temperature if possible. In the event of an outbreak, officials from the Centers for Disease Control will need to trace the spread of the disease. Your church’s records will make this much easier and thus can accelerate efforts to contain the disease. This will save lives. Also, taking attendance at the door reduces infection risk from passing attendance books during the service.

  • Once people are inside the building, they can be allowed to move about freely. Especially if they are arriving early, children may get antsy. Having some child-focused programs going on in the 30 minutes before the service is a good idea. There is no need to force congregants to proceed directly to their seats or pews; they should feel free to have their normal community life once within the church. That communion together is, after all, the whole point of resisting cancellation.

  • Interpersonal touch between congregants should not be institutionally discouraged. Again, the point of maintaining strict hygiene is to make it possible for people to come to church for a refuge. While congregants might wisely choose to avoid lots of handshakes and hugs, it is absolutely inappropriate to say or do anything which directly discourages or shames congregants for showing affection and care for one another. Especially if your community has imposed quarantine measures, the mental and psychological health of your congregants is important.

  • Two additional door managers should be posted at the door to the church sanctuary itself. They do not need to take attendance, but should be checking to ensure all congregants are wearing masks, and they should force congregants to re-apply hand sanitizer. Absolutely do not allow any greeters or welcoming staff to shake hands with large numbers of people. It’s fine for individual congregants to have physical contact, but having one or a few individuals contact large numbers of people is very unwise. Have your greeters drop a friendly dollop of alcohol-based hand sanitizer on each person’s hands.

How can we reduce the risk that communion spreads disease in our church?

  • Reduce the number of people who approach the altar, table, or rail at a single time. Ensure that they can maintain at least 18 inches of distance between each household taking communion. Even if it slows down the services, allow plenty of space.

  • Do not call individuals forward for communion until it is actually time to go and receive. Do not have lots of people standing around in lines. This is an infection risk. Have a given pew or aisle “on deck” and ready to speedily-but-reverently proceed to the altar. This will keep your ushers on their toes, so have them practice in advance!

  • Do not pass a communion plate down the pew or row. By the time it gets to the last person that plate is a massive infection risk. Don’t do it. If at all possible, avoid this method of communion, in favor of calling communicants forward to a specific altar(s)/table(s)/rail(s).

  • Do not use a common cup or intinction. Although the alcohol content in wine does reduce the risk of disease surviving on the cup, it does not eliminate it. Common cup communion is the single highest-risk element of communion. If at all possible, remove it from your practice for the duration of the epidemic, and replace it with individual cups. Intinction by the communicant is also very risky given that hands carry germs.

  • Do not ask celebrants to place the elements into a communicant’s mouth. That communicant’s breath and saliva is a major vector of disease. The pastor’s hands may become contaminated and thus spread disease to others.

  • The lowest-risk strategy for communion is for small groups to approach a designated place to receive communion, and there take the bread in individual pieces and the wine in individual cups. Even the bread should not be heaped high; a small number of pieces of bread should be available for the congregant to take. Or, the pastor could place an individual piece of bread into communicants’ hands, ideally without direct hand-to-hand touch.

What are other high-infection-risk parts of a common service, and how can we reduce risk?

  • Passing of the peace” involves a large number of people touching each other. Don’t do this as long as the epidemic continues.

  • Passing offering plates spreads infection. Consider replacing offering plates with a model whereby congregants come forward and place their offering in a receptacle of some kind. Naturally, transitioning to online giving would reduce risk even more, but many people value the experience of giving in a community.

  • Offerings of cash should be discouraged, as physical currency carries far more germs than checks do. Whoever counts the money will be at much lower risk if congregants avoid cash gifts for a few weeks.

  • Attendance rosters can also spread infection. They should not be passed during the epidemic. As noted, taking attendance at the door eliminates the need for passing attendance sheets during the service.

  • Hymnals, especially leather covers, might be able to carry the virus. Switching to PowerPoint or disposable printed bulletins may help reduce risk. However, wiping leather hymnal covers with disinfectant wipes is also effective, albeit more costly and time consuming.

  • “Children’s sermons” involve a lot of kids, who tend to produce mucus and saliva, getting up and milling about during the service. Providing a children’s lesson without moving the kids may be preferable.

  • Sunday school for kids can be continued, but kids should have their hands sanitized at the beginning and the end of Sunday school, and activities should be planned which don’t require too much excessive touching or many shared craft supplies.

  • You can help the public health authorities in a very useful way: during the service, have someone go up into the choir loft or balcony. Take a high-resolution photo of the entire congregation. This can help establish who sat close to whom, which can be helpful in tracing an outbreak.

  • Shared meals are a huge infection risk. Do not provide any open food containers with self-service, such as is normally done in a potluck. Individual packets of condiments are preferable.

  • The safest way to provide food is to supply individually-wrapped snacks. Do not pre-pour lots of cups of beverages for people to take, or even set out empty cups: a single cough or infected breath on such cups could infect dozens of people. After any fellowship event, scrupulously disinfect all surfaces.

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