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Churches keeping to their plans for Easter

Suggestions from the State Department of Health that churches avoid indoor gatherings are not affecting many local churches’ plans for Easter Sunday.

Numerous churches are not meeting indoors yet, anyway, and others are meeting indoors regardless — each congregation is operating according to its individual leadership.

This week, Mississippi health officials recommended that churches and other religious organizations continue to hold off on hosting indoor worship services amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, even as Gov. Tate Reeves has relaxed regulations on other kinds of social gatherings. 

“To prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the vulnerable, the safest options continue to be virtual or outdoor services,” read a press release from the state Department of Health this week detailing new guidelines for faith-based gatherings and worship.

Earlier this month, Reeves, a Republican, rolled back mask mandates on the state level and all capacity regulations for restaurants. 

As for worship services, health officials say they recommend everyone 65 and older or 16 or older with high-risk medical conditions be fully vaccinated against coronavirus before attending indoor services.

All congregants should wear a face mask at all times during in-person services and Sunday school classes and maintain six feet of separation from people who don’t live in the same house as them. People should not gather in close groups while entering or exiting the building and use hand sanitizer. 

Singing at services is “a high-risk activity that can quickly spread viral particles,” officials said. 

“It is preferable to not have choirs; however, if choirs are performing, they should be small in number, masked, and separated by six feet,” the health department’s release reads.

Congregations should pursue alternatives to shared cups for communion, according to the department. Hymn and prayer books can be used if congregants sanitize their hands before use. 

For the Rev. Vernell Robinson and Crump Chapel Church on Zetus Road, the recommendations are not applicable at this time. 

“As pastor, my main jobs are to encourage my people spiritually and to try to keep them safe,” Robinson said. 

Because most of his congregation is older, he said, they have been meeting only virtually. But now that more than 90% of his congregation has received vaccinations, they want to change that.

This Sunday — Easter Sunday — they plan to gather in the parking lot, with appropriate precautions in place, Robinson said.

The Rev. Rico Cain, president of the Brookhaven Ministerial Alliance, said none of the churches involved in the alliance are meeting indoors, so the suggestions don’t negatively impact them.

“Everyone is meeting digitally or in parking lots,” Cain said. “None of us have gone back to inside gatherings yet. We’re waiting until the numbers remain lower and most have had opportunities to get vaccinated.”

The members of Southway Baptist Church returned to indoor gatherings months ago, with precautions in place. Since then, social distancing and mask wearing are up to individuals and small groups. The church resumed its regular meeting schedule on March 14.

“Our members are kind of over it,” said pastor Dr. Rich Balkcom. “At first it was a requirement (not to meet), then a recommendation, then a suggestion, and now people are tired of it and want to meet.”

The new cautions will not affect the church’s Resurrection Sunday meeting plans, Balkcom said.