Less than three weeks since the governor paused the state’s reopening, area churches must still chart their own path through the post-coronavirus landscape.
As with all businesses, organizations and venues that draw public crowds, churches closed their doors following Gov. Doug Ducey’s March 26 executive order, which called on Arizonans to shelter in place and embrace social distancing to combat the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.
Church leaders across the Valley adapted after that and embraced a variety of approaches to continue guiding their flocks, including recorded and remotely televised or digitally streamed religious services.
Pastor Kale Garrison, who leads Christ Church of the Valley’s Surprise campus, responded to a Daily Independent survey of local pastors in early May.
He explained his congregation’s response to the lockdown order.
With more than 5,600 worshipers — who had previously attended one of six weekly in-person services in Surprise, along with the rest of an estimated 35,000 members of CCV’s 10 campuses across the Valley — church leaders had no choice but to embrace telephonic services and other alternatives, Mr. Garrison said.
“Right after it was announced that we would pause our weekly in-person gatherings for worship services and physical experiences, we moved to an exclusive online experience,” Mr. Garrison stated. “One of the areas we place a high value for the community in is our small groups, which happen all across the Valley in homes through the week. We moved those to Zoom, so groups could continue to meet at least on a digital platform.”
After the governor’s executive order expired on May 15, many businesses reopened, including dine-in restaurants and, eventually, bars and gyms.
But following the resurgence of positive novel coronavirus screenings and the continuing rise in hospitalizations and deaths in Arizona and elsewhere, Mr. Ducey announced the pause and another executive order at a June 29 press conference.
While that order and those which have followed provide renewed guidance on closing or limiting some types of businesses again — including public pools, movie theaters, water parks, indoor gyms and fitness clubs — no additional requirements were published for churches.
The Daily Independent reached out for clarification from the governor’s office following his June 29 press conference and, asking: In light of the coverage today of Gov. Ducey’s order re-closing bars and limiting gatherings to 50 or fewer people, can you clarify — does this apply to church gatherings, too?
As of press time yesterday, the governor’s office had not responded. Nor did Mr. Ducey’s office provide any information about the basis of his 50-person limit.
Despite additional executive orders — which have added social distancing restrictions for restaurants, enforcement and penalties, and enhanced outbreak surveillance, among other measures — churches and faithbased organizations have received no new guidance on how to respond to the outbreak.
Meanwhile, in neighboring California, Gov. Gavin Newsom last week imposed a ban on singing in church, which led to immediate lawsuits, according to multiple reports.
It will be up to the courts to decide if Mr. Newsom’s social distancing restrictions went too far.
Closer to home, one West Valley pastor said the outbreak and social distancing have changed how to they conduct their mission in the community, but not all for the bad.
Russ Smith, lead pastor at City Church in Surprise, provided these answers to Daily Independent’s latest survey of area church leaders.
Question: Please generally describe your congregation, its size and how long you have been in your community.
Answer: City Church gathers on the Ottawa University Campus in Surprise. We are a four year old church plant. We have been on the campus since December 1 of 2019. Currently we are about 70 in size.
Question: How have social distancing guidelines affected your services and operations?
Answer: We went 15 or 16 weeks without gathering in person. We currently are not providing any child care, we are limiting attendance, we have people register ahead of time in order to have a roster in case of anyone contracting, then we know who might need to be contacted.
Question: What new or different procedures, services or approaches did you employ in response to the lockdown back in late March?
Answer: We encourage masks in areas where we cannot keep six-foot distance. We no longer offer coffee, donuts etc. We do provide bottled water. Our chairs are spaced at a very safe distance. We sanitize chairs, door handles, etc before and after service.
Question: What have you done the same or differently since mid-May, when the shelter-in-place order expired?
Answer: Outside of “service flow” and the above listed changes, we have not changed much on Sunday mornings. We are being very slow to move in our phases. We do have a four-phase plan for opening that we wrote and are following.
Question: Do you believe the lockdown, as instituted, was necessary? Should the stricter lock down return? Has it been helpful or hurtful to your community?
Answer: I do not believe the original lockdown in its entirety was needed. I believe we needed to add hand washing, masks, distancing, limited attendance. If we would have in-filled those steps and stayed with them for an extended amount of time my personal opinion is we would not have seen the second spike, people itching to “get out” and schools able to function to help students and parents. Sadly, it seems we were impatient and “tired of the lockdown” and now we are seeing the increase of cases. The lockdown certainly hurt our community. Much of our vision and emphasis is on community atmosphere, relationships, investing in our local community (outside of church gathering), and friendships. We lost much of that part our DNA. We also cannot grow in size with the limitations placed during lockdown. We have regathered one time (last Sunday) and had about 50% attendance of those that call City Church home.
Question: If any, what are some ways this crisis has helped or changed things for the better in your community?
Answer: One benefit for us has been we were forced to provide online, digital streaming. That is a piece of influence we had not been utilizing. Our team was so amazing. They put together a fantastic recording each week. Our digital footprint went from nearly non-existent to several hundred views each week. That is pretty cool.