Reopening Churches – Balancing Rewards and Risks

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Churches and other places of worship are having to make difficult decisions as they decide when and how they will reopen for in-person worship and, eventually, other activities and programs. We all want to again be together in our faith communities but need to keep in mind COVID-19 remains a serious threat and the disease is easily spread among people who are close to each other. Our places of worship need to take protective measures to reduce the risk of spreading the disease within our faith communities, primarily for the obvious ethical and moral reasons but also to reduce the risk of legal liability.

We strongly recommend Churches and other places of worship carefully consider how they will reopen and document their plan for reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19 through a written (and followed!) COVID-19 Preparedness Plan. At a minimum, the Plan should state:

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  • The place of worship’s planned schedule for reopening different aspects of its worship, ministries, and programs.
  • Making clear the schedule is subject to change if conditions warrant or additional legal restrictions are imposed.
  • Outline protective actions the place of worship will take to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 through its activities.
  • Identify persons responsible for implementing the Plan.
  • Ways to get further information about COVID-19 and what the risks are.
  • Make clear there is a risk of COVID-19 spreading among participants in worship and other activities participants are assuming that risk.

The Plan should be communicated to all those who participate in the faith community’s worship and activities by all appropriate means such as email, U.S. mail, posting on the faith community’s website and including in emailed or mailed newsletters, and posting at the place of worship. Also, give notice of changes in the Plan as they are made.

Churches and other faith communities will want to do what they can to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading through their worship and activities. These efforts will probably revolve around maintaining “social distancing,” pre-screening, and cleaning and sanitizing surfaces.

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Social distancing, of course, is the notion of people staying at least six feet apart. This separation can be enforced in worship by measures like blocking off every other row in the Sanctuary or auditorium and leaving such distance within a row between families reminding attendees, which can be encouraged and enforcing through in-worship reminders and with the help of ushers and community leaders. Limiting attendance to accommodate social distancing may be necessary and can be done by requiring pre-registration to keep attendance low enough to allow proper social distancing.

Places of worship should also postpone resuming before and after worship programs, childcare, education, fellowship time and the like until COVID-19 is under much better control and CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health loosen their restrictions on such activities. Remember Churches and other places of worship can continue their “online” presence, so accommodating social distancing does not need to keep people from worshiping with their faith community.

Advisable “housekeeping” measures presumably will include regularly disinfecting armrests, backs of seats or pews, door handles, restrooms, tables, and countertops, and other such places. Churches may also consider requiring worshipers to wear masks and gloves. Masks and gloves should be made available even if their use is not required.

When announcing the resumption of worship or other programs Churches seemingly should clearly state that anyone who is feeling ill, has any symptoms associated with COVID-19, or has been around someone who has or may have been, exposed to COVID-19, should not attend.

Some places of worship we know of are considering screening people as they come to worship by taking temperatures and watching for signs of COVID-19. Such screening may seem contrary to a place of worship’s desire to welcome all, but current circumstances are making people more aware of the need to protect against the spread of the virus so such screening may not be offensive as the concept might seem at first impression.

While perhaps less obvious, Churches should consider reminding people who are elderly or have medical issues that they presumably are at higher risk and should seriously consider participating only through the online program. The same point should be considered in connection with young children, not because they are unwelcome but since they may not be able to grasp the need for social distancing, not touching others and covering their coughs and sneezes, and they can be impulsive increasing the risk of not following the announced protective rules.

Additional recommendations include reminding people not to congregate in close proximity outside of the Church and not to form groups standing in the street or Church parking lot Without after-worship fellowship, there may be a tendency for people to gather in groups and being both too close together and standing where cars will be moving, so watching for and reminding people about these risks seems advisable.

Churches and other places of worship should monitor and adhere to the relevant directives and guidance from local, state, and federal authorities related to COVID-19. These guidelines may be found in a variety of places, including but not limited to, the following:

  1. Centers for Disease Control recommendations for Faith-Based Organizations located at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/index.html.
  2. “Maintaining Healthy Business Operations” for additional guidance located at https://www.cdc. gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-business-response.html.
  3. Minnesota Department of Labor has a great page with a variety of guidance for specific organizations located at https://www.
    dli. mn.gov/business/workplace-safety-and-health/mnosha-com-pliance-novel-coronavirus-cov-id-19.
  4. OSHA guidance located at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/co-vid-19/.

Plans should be updated as these agencies offer new guidance and change their recommendations.

We have been asked about Churches or other faith communities requiring a written waiver and release of liability for its in-person activities, including worship services. There are obvious concerns about taking this action, especially since such waivers and releases must clearly and unambiguously identify the involved risks, including, among others, the potential exposure to COVID-19, and there are practical challenges associated with obtaining binding releases and waivers from or for children.

Some places of worship may be more comfortable with what we are calling an “assumption of risk” approach. Faith communities seemingly should make clear that its protective measures are meant to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading among those participating in worship or other activities but does not ensure the virus is not present in and around the Church. Simply put, the risk of infection still exists no matter how many protective measures are taken. Places of worship should consider stating that anyone participating in worship or any other activities assumes the risk of COVID-19 infection. Assumption of risk, like waivers of liability, require clearly identifying the risks, including potential exposure to COVID-19, and state participation means participants accept that risk. Such measures do not ensure a Church or other place of worship will have no liability for the spread of the virus through any of its activities, but both put people on notice that the risk of infection exists and they can choose not to attend. Such warnings should be included online, in mailed or mailed announcements, and at the place of worship or other activity.

We do not know if Courts will accept liability waivers and releases or apply the assumption of risk concepts in our current circumstances. COVID-19 is a new challenge and principles of public policy may override the legal basis for liability waivers and releases and assumptions of risk. Nonetheless, these may be useful tools that potentially might help protect Churches against possible future claims of liability.
Please keep in mind the foregoing observations are subject to change, and the practical and legal aspects of COVID-19 will change with time. This article is provided for general information only and does not constitute medical or legal advice and should not be relied on by itself and/or without consultation with a reader’s professional advisors. These recommendations are subject to change, as this continues to be a changing and evolving area of the law. This article is meant to be informational only and does not create an attorney-client privilege, and readers are encouraged to consult their legal counsel for advice about the risks and possible protective measures related to “reopening” faith communities for worship and other activities.

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