With the end of the year approaching, concerns have been slowly growing about how to handle parties and other holiday gatherings in the face of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even issued various guidelines for safely approaching these celebrations in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Because November and December also mean year-end religious observances, questions arise about what steps churches, synagogues, shuls, mosques and other institutions are taking to protect those in attendance. Also, it’s important for individuals to understand how to safeguard their health if they decide to attend Mass, services or prayers in person this holiday season.
In the United States, many observant Christians follow Roman Catholic and Protestant teachings. Others, such as Bible or community churches, might not affiliate with any specific denomination. However, when it comes to gatherings of large groups, most follow the guidelines of their state, county or municipality, including gathering in small groups, wearing face masks and practicing social distancing. These guidelines will be in place until further notice.
Tim Bishop, Director of Marketing and Communication for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, indicated that parish directives are publicly available on the diocesan website. These directives are to remain in effect at least until the end of the year. The advice is to stay home when feeling ill. If not, attending Mass in person is allowed, so long as members of the congregation wear masks and practice social distancing. Either way, Mark E. Brennan, Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, has dispensed those who are in the Dioceses of Wheeling-Charleston from their obligation to attend Mass in person, pointing to many online readings and prayers to practice from home.
The United Methodist Church (UMC), which has oversight of thousands of churches throughout the United States, offers guidelines on in-person worshiping, which include socially distanced seating, entering and exiting from specific, identified doors, health screenings and temperature checks conducted at entrances, and refraining from greeting fellow worshippers with hugs or handshakes until restrictions are lifted. As seems to be the case with many religious institutions and churches, many UMC churches are advised to follow state and county guidelines pertaining to the number of individuals allowed to gather inside buildings.
Finally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church) has taken COVID-19 seriously and will continue to do so, according to LDS member Adam Jacobs, who is Content Director at Hooley & Burch. “We’ve been splitting up our congregations into groups of less than 100, requiring masks, no singing during communion, and all our Sunday School classes have moved online, via Zoom or YouTube,” said Jacobs, who lives in Rexburg, ID. Meanwhile, stake conferences — during which stake leaders travel to local congregations to give talks — are scheduled to begin in November 2020 and can take place in person “with careful social distancing,” according to the LDS.
The main Jewish holiday observed during the late fall/early winter months is Chanukah. While Chanukah is not a marquee event on the Jewish calendar, it is a family-friendly holiday, with many synagogues and shuls hosting parties and candle-lightings.
Not many coronavirus guidelines are likely to change from the high holidays observed in late September. Synagogues and congregations affiliated with the Orthodox Union (OU) are encouraged to follow many safety suggestions, such as scheduling daily prayers (minyans) outdoors, when feasible. Furthermore, shuls (places of prayer) are encouraged to follow state and county guidelines when it comes to gatherings for live services, meaning social distancing and masks should be in place. Furthermore, the OU suggests that all spaces be properly ventilated.
Those Jewish organizations affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism are encouraged to carefully consider any kind of re-opening or group gathering (keeping in mind state and county guidelines), with online worship encouraged, where possible. Doorway temperature checks, along with specifically mandated entries and exits, are also in play. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is also telling its affiliated synagogues to place hygiene stations at building entrances and other locations, encourage temperature checks, brush up on technical tools for remote worship and keep following governmental guidelines for group gatherings.
The only major upcoming holiday in Islam is Eid-e-Milad (Muhammad’s birthday), celebrated on October 30 by Sunni Muslims, or November 3 by Shia Muslims. Most mosques in North America follow directives from the Islamic Society of North America regarding group gatherings and prayers. These directives include limiting the number of people gathered at any one time, as mandated by state authorities. Additionally, masks are required and will continue to be so, as well as adequate distancing between rows. Sermons are also to be kept as brief as possible, and it’s suggested that individuals perform Sunnah prayers at home.
According to the Islamic Association of North Texas website, restrooms, Wudhu areas (involving the ritual cleaning before prayers) and drinking fountains are closed, and attendees are required to bring their own prayer rugs and shoe bags. Check-ins will also take a little longer, with temperature readings required.
The five-day Hindu festival Pancha Ganapti is celebrated in December. As an example, the D/FW Hindu Temple Society (Ekta Mandir) only just recently opened its temple in Irving, TX, with current restrictions to be kept in place until further notice. The restrictions include mandatory masks, with only 25 devotees allowed at a time into the building, and only for Darshan. Darshan refers to the beholding of a deity or sacred object. Furthermore, devotees are not allowed to bring homemade prasadams, fruits or nuts for offerings, only the main temple entry and exits are open, and virtual services are encouraged.
The Bottom Line
Most religious organizations and institutions won’t likely change their coronavirus requirements or mandates currently in place for any end-of-year celebrations. Your best bet for staying safe is to pay attention to guidelines posted on your religious organizations’ website, while also practicing social distancing and wearing a mask.