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Churches across the DMV reopened Sunday to worshipers; others say it's too soon

Religious leaders said they have missed their congregants. With reopening in the beginning, some were ready to see them in person.

STAFFORD COUNTY, Va. — While the Maryland and Virginia governors allowed places of worship to start reopening this weekend in some areas, not all religious leaders agree it's the right time.

Pastor Jason Baxter, with the New Life Baptist Church of Calvert County, was more than ready to reopen when he finally got the legal go-ahead.

“It’s different to preach to a laptop, a webcam," Pastor Baxter said. "Today it felt good. It felt good to be around God’s people.”

Pastor Baxter said he opened the church to 20 congregants Sunday, implementing many of the state's regulations and county's suggestions for safety.

“We did the hand sanitizer. We did the one person opening the door, nobody touch door handles, Lysol the bathrooms after you use it," he said.

Credit: Pastor Jason Baxter
New Life Baptist Church reopened to congregants Sunday for the first time in weeks.

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The Calvert County Health Department sent a letter to congregation leaders this past week, outlining nine safety suggestions to implement when reopening.

One of those included not singing, because the department's letter said, 

"Singing dramatically increases the risk of transmitting COVID. If someone is an asymptomatic carrier of the virus (feels fine but is infected), singing increases the amount of virus they exhale and at least doubles the distance the virus carries through the air. Outside of nursing homes, some of the worst outbreaks of COVID have occurred as the result of singing in churches."

Pastor Baxter said he and his congregation felt compelled to sing regardless. In his taped sermon from Sunday, he told them, "You can't have church without singing."

Over in Stafford, Virginia, one of the areas where Governor Ralph Northam said churches could reopen at 50% capacity, business manager Neal Armstrong was thrilled to help St. William of York Catholic Church prepare for its first in-person services in eight weeks. 

He said they started by taking reservations for their 88 available seats, which they ended up filling for every mass. Typically, he said they can seat 450 parishioners.

“We Catholics of course, the center of our faith is being able to receive our Lord through our Eucharist and being able to do that after 8 weeks was powerful, very very powerful," Armstrong said. "Gives us the spiritual food we need to get through another week.”

Armstrong said everyone was required to wear a mask, and those who wanted to receive the Eucharist in their hands would get it from the priest, step to the side, lift their mask up, and place it in their mouth. 

Receiving it directly in their mouths was still an option -- and he said the priest sanitized his hands between each person in that case.

Armstrong said they arranged seating so that every person was situated at least six feet apart from one another, and there were two rows of pews between them.

Credit: Catholic Diocese of Arlington
St. Mary's in Fredericksburg set up a social distancing mass in the gym for Sunday services.

St. Mary's in Fredericksburg organized chairs in a gym to ensure proper social distancing for Sunday mass.

Not all religious leaders said they were ready to reopen -- like Dr. Tiina Rodrigue, the President of Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg.

“While the governor does not feel that the Fredericksburg area is part of Northern Virginia, we’re really a bedroom community for DC," Dr. Rodrigue. "So until it is safe for our congregation, we’re not going to endanger anyone’s life.”

She said the temple has committed to following CDC recommendations on reopening. For now, Dr. Rodrigue said they will continue offering virtual services.

She said some good has come out of the pandemic -- members asked them to continue virtual services moving forward so they can still worship if they don't show up in person.

The Islamic Center of Stafford is also sticking to virtual services for the foreseeable future.

“The decision is life or death," Imam Sherif Shahata. "And God is everywhere. We can worship God at home.”

Imam Shahata said Ramadan would typically draw thousands to pray, which is part of why he feels like he can't open yet.

“I have to make sure when I give the green light, their life is safe, the building is safe, and they have well-indicated that they have to wear a mask and no hugging, no kissing," the Imam said. "I cannot be monitoring everyone over a thousand people.”

Credit: Catholic Diocese of Arlington
Parishioners were seated at least six feet apart at St. Mary's of Fredericksburg's first public mass in weeks.

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