On March 24, a thousand church leaders across Pennsylvania participated in a call with Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, who repeatedly emphasized how “essential” and “life-sustaining” churches, synagogues and mosques are in the face of COVID-19.
Kurt Weaver, director of the Church Ambassador Network of Pennsylvania Family Institute, who sponsored the call, introduced Levine and offered a prayer for God’s protection and direction, citing Philippians 4.
To provide an example to other churches, Levine asked Pastor Mark Kelly Tyler of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia to share about what his church is doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tyler responded that three weeks ago, he and church members were doing elbow bumps. Two weeks ago, they began broadcasting live services, with their worship team, through the internet so church members could attend from home. Now, they are entirely online, with Tyler preaching from his home.
Tyler said the church has also purchased an audio THAT-2 telephone interface, which allows members to listen to the livestream through their telephones.
Pointing to Philadelphia and its four surrounding counties, Tyler asked Levin what current quarantines mean for churches and other houses of worship.
He noted congregants are okay with seeing clergy preach from their home offices, but they also want to see their places of worship, which “provides a sense of comfort to them.”
Levine said she “agreed 100%” that churches, temples and mosques are “life-sustaining in every sense of the word.” And because of that, the state government leaves it to each church’s discretion at how to practice that work.
“You are allowed to have people in your church, but any group of people together brings risk,” she advised, warning them to practice social distancing.
“No one should question you leading your services that way,” she added, referring to a small group of church leaders recording services from their buildings. “It is a very prudent way to serve the spiritual needs of the church.”
Levine went on to explain the origins of the COVID-19 virus (and other viruses) and explained how China’s “very severe measures” has helped turn the tide on the disease in their country.
She also reported the current statistics, as of March 24:
- Worldwide: 400,000 cases with over 17,000 deaths
- U.S.: 47,273 cases with 588 deaths
- PA: 801 cases with 7 deaths
She noted the increase of 200 new contractions of the disease just that day, with most occurring in the counties in and surrounding Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Levine recounted the three measures the government and the healthcare industry are taking to confront the disease: mitigation through social distancing and the closure of schools and non-life-sustaining businesses; testing, particularly of “priority patients,” which includes healthcare providers; and preparation of the healthcare system to have adequate supplies, including staffing, hospital beds, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
“We are seeing an exponential rise of the disease, essentially doubling every two to three days,” she said, explaining that it is likely, by the end of the week, Pennsylvania will see 400 cases, then 800, then 1,600 cases a day, “which will completely overwhelm our hospital systems.”
“And of course, our spiritual leaders are essential and life-sustaining,” she stressed, still emphasizing social distancing.
“What is most needed from you [clergy] is your spiritual guidance and spiritual care for your parishioners,” she said. “I am working to sustain their physical life. You sustain their spiritual life. We each have distinct roles.”
Levine then answered questions from the clergy, which included the following:
Can a small group of people go to their house of worship to perform their live streaming?
Yes, but practice social distancing, she stressed, cautioning churches to use as few people as possible for their worship services.
“The safest thing to do is to stay home,” she said, pointing to the 1918 Flu epidemic, which resulted in an estimated 50 million people deaths.
If we find ourselves in proximity to a parent or child who you don’t know if they have a cold or virus, what should they do?
You only have to self-quarantine if you come into contact with someone with COVID-19. Those with COVID-19 should isolate (in hospital or at home, if they are not too sick).
“We are looking for a decrease in the number of cases before this mitigation is over,” Levine said.
Levine said the virus is dangerous because “we don’t know enough about it.” There is no treatment, no vaccine, it’s brand new, and more communicable and more severe than the flu.
The incubation period to get the virus is 2 to 14 days (most at 5 days), and we don’t know if people can transmit the disease when they don’t have symptoms, she added.
What are some trusted, unbiased resources:
When can congregations safely gather for worship again?
After we see a sustained decline in new cases, maybe in April and May, Levine said. “We all pray it goes down by summer, June.”
She explained what the decline will look like. It will be a decrease in the rate of new cases, then a plateau and decrease of new cases.
What medicines should we take for COVID-19?
There is no standard of care or treatment yet, Levine said, stressing that people should not take medicines outside of doctor’s orders.
Can we continue our church’s food ministry?
Yes! Food is a life-sustaining ministry, whether through grocery stores and/or food banks. Practice social distancing, handwashing, using elbows when sneezing, and not touching your faces after touching surfaces.
How can we help the people of the Commonwealth?
Continue in your role as a spiritual leader and help people with spiritual direction.
Do you see a case of when the governor will order to close churches?
I do not see that.
How can we best decontaminate the church building?
Levine urged her listeners to look at their resources on their website: https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/coronavirus/Pages/Coronavirus.aspx
How should clergy handle funerals during this time?
As stated before, we are not going to prevent spiritual services, Levine said. Use your best judgment. The more people who congregate together, the more chance for the virus to spread.
“With religious practices, like funerals and weddings, the less people you have, the safer you’ll be,” she said.
How to best serve those who need medicines/groceries?
Levine urged no contact, but to pick up items and leave at the person’s front door.
Is there a risk of passing through charitable donations?
There is very little risk, but the virus can live on surfaces, she said. Avoid touching items from people who appear sick. Normal cleaning of the items should be fine for keeping it safe.
Are outdoor services permissible, such as a sunrise service?
Yes, churches can conduct services, and outside is better, said Levine, but fewer people is better. Practice social distancing.
Should we be as concerned in Pennsylvania’s rural areas?
Noting “the virus doesn’t know the difference in geographical areas,” she said, whether you are in a rural area or a big city, do the best you can do.
Acknowledging the spread is slower in rural areas, she stressed the fewer people who gather the better.
What kind of economic assistance is available from state government?
As a healthcare provider, Levine said she cannot provide those details.
In closing, Levine said, “Thank you for your service… Stay calm, stay home and stay safe.”