Like most people these days, I have a small bottle of hand sanitizer that I carry with me on those times I venture out – doctor’s appointments and moving into our new home have been the extent of my trips. Whatever I do, it usually involves several applications of sanitizer. I’m looking at the bottle with hopes that it will last like the widow of Zarephath’s jar of oil (1 Kings 17:8-16).
We have been in “safer at home” mode for 5-6 weeks now as we have been trying together to flatten the curve of the spread of the coronavirus. “Slow the spread,” the electronic signs on the expressways flash. The experience of other states and the fears that Florida’s health care system would be overwhelmed have not happened, although we mourn all those who have been afflicted with this virus, especially those who have died.
Our son, Jonathan, has just concluded a month’s rotation of hospital medicine in his residency at University Hospital in New Orleans. He was on a team that treated COVID-19 patients exclusively. At the start of the month his team was treating their maximum number of 20 patients, all with the virus. As the month ended, his team’s patient load was down to 2-5 patients with the virus. That is an anecdotal account of the effect of social distancing for which antibody testing will begin to give the fuller story and better information for the medical community to assess the true impact of the virus.
As May begins, Florida is moving to Phase 1 of reopening the state for business and other activities. Restaurants can operate at 25% capacity while maintaining social distancing of six feet and increased sanitation protocols. Beaches are reopening with similar restrictions. Elective surgeries can resume, among other steps. But among the businesses not on the Phase 1 list at this time are churches. Nothing has changed at this point from our current experience. Churches are considered to be essential businesses, but are to follow CDC guidelines which still say no public gatherings of more than ten people.
Sessions retain oversight of all aspects of church life, including worship. Presbytery lacks the constitutional authority to direct sessions in these matters. We can only offer “ministerial and declarative” advice (F-3.0107). CFP’s advice has been to follow the procedures established by civil authorities, for two primary reasons. First, a session could expose the congregation to liability from litigation not covered by the congregation’s insurance if it fails to follow CDC guidelines and a cluster of infections develops. Second, it seems better for churches to be seen as good community partners rather than perceived as resisting or disobeying protocols designed to keep communities safer. The pastor check-in calls we have been holding weekly have testified to the creative ways congregations in Central Florida Presbytery have been doing ministry since they began to shift services from in-person to online. This week’s call also showed ways in which sessions are planning for reopening for worship and other activities. Over the past couple of weeks, several articles have been produced specifically focused on churches and questions that need to be addressed before in-person worship and other activities resume.
The first of these articles was written by Ken Braddy, LifeWay Christian Resources’ Director of Sunday School. Originally listing 24 questions that ought to be addressed, Braddy’s list has been revised to 48 questions. Othesr have picked up on this theme, including the Wisconsin Council of Churches and several presbyteries. Some of our sessions have begun to work on their own policies and procedures, including Calvin Gittner and the Port Orange session. All of these resources are available on the Presbytery’s COVID-19 Resources Page under the “Re-Opening Churches Resources” section.
CFP is convening a special committee to review these documents and add any guidance it believes will be helpful for our Presbytery. For now, review these resources and begin or continue your conversations on steps to take when it becomes time to re-open our sanctuaries. One thing that ought to be done is to have a conversation with your insurance carrier to make certain that you are addressing any concerns they might have. If you have questions or concerns about any of this, please be in touch with us on the Presbytery Staff.