The Re-Opening Task Force and Board of Directors have been asked to please explain how we reached the decisions we made with regard to returning to in-person worship and the criteria we are using to modify in-person worship going forward.
When we first started to discuss returning to in-person worship, we landed on three principles:
- follow the science;
- follow health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and from the federal, state, and local governments;
- and remain true to the Unitarian Universalist principle of inclusion.
The last makes in-person worship particularly difficult: How do we return in a manner that allows the most vulnerable in our congregation to return with the rest of us; how do we ensure that no one feels excluded?
By the time of the annual meeting in June, both we and apparently the congregation as a whole were feeling that September would see us all back together in our beloved building. The decision by the congregation to not make the virtual part of hybrid services completely interactive reflected the belief that enhancing the virtual aspect of the service was not only very expensive but would also prove to be unnecessary because we would return.
And then the Delta variant of COVID-19 and the return of masking while inside public spaces.
While the three principles that initially governed our decisions remain largely in place, the UU principle of inclusion has been somewhat modified by the reality that the coronavirus is likely endemic: a disease that will continue to circulate within our community, but will not cause undue economic and social hardship. We will all learn to live with the virus as we have learned to live with the influenza virus. We will get vaccinated on a regular basis to protect ourselves and others; we will stay home when we don’t feel well and may be contagious. The United States may adopt mask-wearing in some public spaces — especially those where we don’t know everyone present and we are all indoors together — as some societies have been doing for years.
We also noted, both through reading of news and science, but also through our own lived experience, that the removal from in-person contact with our social network has been hard. Almost everyone is experiencing higher levels of depression and anxiety, as well as loneliness. There is the concern that, without a return to in-person worship, the congregation will wither and cease to exist.
So we decided to return to in-person worship, and to do it as safely as possible.
Some of our decisions we believe speak for themselves and therefore do not need explanation: requiring all attendees to be fully vaccinated and signing everyone in so that we can perform contact tracing in case someone tests positive for COVID-19.
Requiring masks for all attendees and sitting in our family pods are other easy-to-accomplish measures that are proven to reduce the spread of the virus, should any be present. These also were measures with which we felt everyone would comply and which could reassure those who want to attend but remain wary of the disease. A balance.
Singing, both by the choir and the congregation, and social hour, with the lack of distance between family pods, are the riskiest activities associated with in-person worship. Singing has been demonstrated to project the saliva droplets much further than talking. And inhaling these droplets is the most efficacious way the virus transfers itself. Sharing of food and drink, with the necessary removal of masks, remained out of the question.
We are now considering how to incorporate singing, especially of the choir, back into our worship. We will be trying out variations, and we need feedback in order to succeed.
And we need your feedback on the rest of our re-opening decisions. What is the correct balance between returning to worship together and protecting the vulnerable? What is the correct balance between protecting our physical health and ensuring our social and mental health? How do we learn to live with COVID-19 as an endemic disease in our society?
If after this explanation you still have questions, please ask them. If it would be useful for the congregation to hold a “town hall” style meeting on in-person worship — a hybrid meeting so everyone is included — please let us know and we can arrange that.
Peace and health,
Karin Fuog, Kali Fyre, David Grober, Tom Bates, Karen Gale, Alex Fuog