The majority of churches in Lancaster County and across the nation last held services inside church buildings March 8. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in churches holding services strictly through online platforms.
During that span, several leaders of churches in Ephrata and New Holland have held weekly online meetings to discuss a possible target date of reopening.
“So nobody looks like they’re a lone ranger and doing something on their own,” says Deryl Hurst, pastor of DOVE Westgate Church in Ephrata.
DOVE Westgate Church, along with Weaverland Mennonite Church in East Earl Township and Petra Church and Christian Fellowship Church in New Holland, have targeted this Sunday for what church leaders are calling a “soft opening.”
Those churches will limit occupancy to 50% or less, which is recommended by Gov. Tom Wolf for large gatherings in counties in the “yellow” phase.
Each church will close every other row in its auditorium and ask each family group to sit together and allow spacing between themselves and other families. Bulletins will not be handed out. No offering will be collected.
“People can come in and leave without touching anything,” says Petra church pastor Lester Zimmerman.
Christian Fellow Church lead pastor Doug Bozung says attendees will be asked to wear masks in the church’s common areas, but not for the service itself.
“Once they get to the pews, if they feel comfortable, they can take their mask off,” Bozung says.
Additionally, there will not be any children’s ministry, the nursery will be closed, and each church will livestream their service so those who don’t feel comfortable attending in person can continue to watch online.
Weaverland Mennonite Church (8 a.m.) and DOVE Westgate Church (9:30 a.m.) will each hold one service.
“This Sunday is a test service,” Hurst says. “If spacing becomes a logistical problem then we’ll go to two services.”
Petra Church (9 a.m. and 11 a.m.) and Christian Fellowship Church (8:15 a.m. and 10:45 a.m.) will each hold two services.
“Depending on what kind of response we have this Sunday, we are considering the option of adding a third service,” Zimmerman said.
‘No political agenda’
The church leaders decided on May 24 as their reopen date because church services on Memorial Day weekend generally see lower attendance numbers, which might help in keeping building capacity below 50%.
“We had decided to reopen (on May 24) before the county made their decision to reopen,” Zimmerman said. “There’s no political agenda here.”
Two weeks ago, 13 Republican officials in Lancaster County signed a letter to Wolf indicating they would gradually begin allowing businesses to reopen May 15 and move the county to the “yellow” stage of Wolf's reopening plan, despite Wolf still having the county listed under the “red” phase.
Churches are deemed to be an essential business under Wolf’s criterion, and state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said in a May 5 phone call with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, “there are no specific requirements that churches cannot meet.”
“We understand and appreciate that the governor has listed churches as essential, which allows us to meet,” Zimmerman says. “We had voluntarily closed because nobody quite knew what was coming down the pike. We wanted to be part of protecting our community and being safe.”
Many churches elsewhere in Lancaster County are remaining status quo in keeping their doors closed and continuing to hold services online, such as LCBC, whose lead pastor David Ashcraft used part of his sermon last week to discuss the church’s timeline toward a possible reopening further in the future.
LCBC director of communications and engagement strategy James Byers writes in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline that the church’s approach, “is to make the decision to re-gather in our buildings as government/health organization guidelines allow” and “when gathering in-person provides a better experience than what we can offer online.”
“We know that the timing will look different from church to church,” Byers said. “We are excited for when we can again meet in person and we are also excited for other churches who can begin to safely meet ahead of our timeline.”