Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom in March. REUTERS/Gabriela Bhaskar

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued guidance Monday to churches and other houses of worship in California on how they can safely reopen amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the guidelines, places of worship must limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or 100 attendees, whichever is lower. This limitation will be in effect for the first 21 days of a county public health department’s approval of religious services within their jurisdictions, after which the California Department of Public Health will review the limits.

They must also arrange for social distancing of at least 6 feet between people, establish and implement a COVID-19 prevention plan for every location, train staff on the plan, and regularly evaluate workplaces for compliance.

Among the other guidelines:

  • Shorten services to limit the length of time congregants/visitors spend at facilities whenever possible. This could include limiting speeches, asking congregants/visitors to put on garments at home before arrival, etc.
  • Close places of worship for visitation outside of scheduled services, meetings, etc., whenever possible.
  • Discontinue large gatherings that encourage congregants/visitors to travel and break physical distances during activities, such as concerts, large holiday and life event celebrations and remembrances.
  • Close children’s play areas and discontinue activities and services for children where physical distancing of at least 6 feet cannot be maintained.
  • Prop or hold doors open during peak periods when congregants/visitors are entering and exiting facilities, if possible and in accordance with security and safety protocols.
  • Close or restrict common areas, such as break rooms, kitchenettes, foyers, etc. where people are likely to congregate and interact.
  • Reconfigure podiums and speaker areas, office spaces, meeting rooms, conference rooms, etc., to allow for at least 6 feet between people.
  • Face coverings are strongly recommended at all times for congregants/visitors and staff.
  • Establish directional hallways and passageways for foot traffic, if possible, and designate separate routes for entry and exit into meeting rooms, offices, etc., to help maintain physical distancing and lessen the instances of people closely passing each other.
  • Close self-service item selection such as pamphlet displays and bookshelves and provide these items to congregants/visitors individually as necessary.
  • Consider limiting the number of people that use the restroom at one time to allow for physical distancing.
  • Discourage staff, congregants, visitors, etc., from engaging in handshakes, hugs, and similar greetings that break physical distance.
  • Reconfigure parking lots to limit congregation points and ensure proper separation (e.g., closing every other space).
  • Discontinue offering self-service food and beverages. Do not hold potlucks or similar family-style eating and drinking events that increase the risk of cross contamination.
  • Strongly consider discontinuing singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets.
  • Consider modifying practices that are specific to particular faith traditions that might encourage the spread of COVID-19. Examples are discontinuing kissing of ritual objects, allowing rites to be performed by fewer people, avoiding the use of a common cup, offering communion in the hand instead of on the tongue, providing pre-packed communion items on chairs prior to service, etc.

The guidelines also recommend reduced visitor capacity and staggered visitation times at funerals, wakes, etc., if possible, and modifying religious or cultural practices when washing or shrouding bodies of those who have died from COVID-19, in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This guidance does not obligate places of worship to resume in- person activity,” the statement said. “Further, it is strongly recommended that places of worship continue to facilitate remote services and other related activities for those who are vulnerable to COVID19 including older adults and those with co-morbidities. Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations. In particular, activities such as singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.”

The entire statement is available online.

Churches and other houses of worship were ordered closed to the public on March 19. Since then many have adjusted by holding virtual services, while a few have recently resumed in-person services in violation of the order.

Newsom said last week that the state would issue guidelines by Monday, despite President Donald Trump’s insistence that they be allowed to reopen immediately for in-person services.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential,” Trump said. “It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

Escondido’s Dean R. Broyles, lead counsel on a lawsuit by Cross Culture Christian Center, called the he opening “clearly the right thing” for Newsom to do.

“The 100-person limit appears to be arbitrary, although we agree that the 25% occupancy limit may be reasonable,” he said in a statement. “But today’s announcement does not erase the fact that, for more than nine weeks, Governor Gavin Newsom and local officials deliberately chose a coercive course of action that treated faith-based gatherings in a discriminatory manner when compared to similar secular gatherings.”

Pastor Jon Duncan of the Lodi-based Christian Center added: “Although we welcome today’s action, our church and places of worship across California have suffered greatly because our leaders chose to marginalize and criminalize faith-based gatherings. If we are to remain free, we must never allow this to happen again.”

Harmeet K. Dhillon of the Center for American Liberty, who also represents clients in lawsuits, said the policy does not go far enough.

“As recently as a week ago, Governor Newsom was telling people of faith they were not second, but third- or fourth-class citizens who could not expect to pray together until months from now, when he says so,” she said in a statement.

“As recently as last week, his administration took the position in court that people of faith are entitled to no special constitutional protection in an emergency, even though he himself has declared that California ‘flattened the curve’ of the disease weeks ago, there is no hospital bed, ventilator, or mask shortage, and many retail operations have been allowed to operate freely with none of the restrictions now being imposed upon houses of worship.”

She called a 25% or 100-person limitation artificial

“Simply put, Governor Newsom lacks authority to dictate to California’s faithful, how they may worship. Guidelines, suggestions, education, and support are all welcome. Secular dictates that do not apply to other categories of our daily lives, are not welcome and not constitutional.”

She said her laws firm and center would continue to pursue clients’ First Amendment rights in court, “all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if we must so that this suppress of faith is fully abated and never repeated.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released “interim guidance” Friday for houses of worship, while continuing to warn that “gatherings present a risk for increasing the spread of COVID-19 during this public health emergency.”

The CDC guidance includes standard recommendations such as frequent hand-washing, encouraging face coverings for staff and congregants, frequent cleaning of surfaces and promotion of social distancing through physical set-up and limited attendance.

The guidelines also recommend changes in the way houses of worship collect financial donations, limited physical contact such as shaking hands or hugging, and limiting the sharing of objects such as prayer books and cups.

More than 1,200 pastors and clergy from across California sent the governor a letter last week saying they plan to resume in-person services May 31, regardless of state restrictions.

Updated at 3:40 p.m. May 25, 2020

— City News Service contributed to this report.