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Stouffville churches ponder how to safely worship as in-person services return

Some congregations are continuing to meet online, while others have started in-person services
June 22, 2020
Simon Martin

Church has been a little different for Jeff Laird, the lead pastor at Stouffville Pentecostal Church, the past few months.

The church stopped meeting at its building on the corner of Sandiford Drive when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out around mid-March.

“Like everybody, we have moved online. We are meeting on Zoom,” Laird said. He added that people miss the face-to-face interactions, but the church's programs have been able to continue online.

Stouffville Pentecostal did do a drive-by, where people came to church in their cars and dropped off donations to the Whitchurch Stouffville Food Bank. “We collected a pile of food,” he said.

With the news that churches are allowed to meet at 30 per cent capacity, Laird said that Stouffville Pentecostal had its first in-person service on June 21.

“We are all getting to the point where we all need some social interaction,” he said.

But it won’t be church as usual. For starters, Laird said, you will have to go online to book a ticket through Eventbrite. “That way we know who is coming and exactly how many people are coming,” he said.

Other restrictions include staying six feet apart and limiting the amount of singing and loud speaking. Laird says there is a number of people that are still not comfortable with returning yet, and the service will be available online as usual for those that choose to stay home. “Please only come if you are feeling well,” he said. “We are happy to be open, but we want everyone to be safe.”

A little further west, at Kennedy and Stouffville Road, Springvale Church is taking a slightly more cautious approach. Director of operations Lillian Boyd said the church is aiming to have its first in-person service around mid-July, depending on the latest state of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two weeks before the pandemic broke out, Springvale launched its online streaming program, which had been part of its strategic plan. Small groups started meeting again through Zoom, conducting weekly check-ins with youth.

While Springvale has a large capacity of around 1,400 people, Boyd said, they are going to limit the number to 300 guests when they reopen. “We want to make sure we do things well,” said Boyd.

Before reopening, the church needs to go through an intensive planning process regarding how all the directives from York Region Public Health will be followed. Another challenge for in-person worship is singing. “It’s a huge conundrum,” Boyd said, as singing is a very important part of the service at Springvale.

For Catholics, the Archdiocese of Toronto has instituted a gradual reopening. Church buildings were reopened for private prayer the week of June 15 and public services can resume on June 17, with weekend services permitted to start June 20.

But reopening comes with a number of public health and safety requirements dictated by the province, including maintaining physical distancing and having a maximum of 30 per cent of the building’s capacity.

Not to mention, the entire building -- from the pews to the benches -- is required to be disinfected before and after each service.

How local places of worship will monitor the maximum 30 per cent capacity limit is left up to the individual location.

Some of the suggestions brought forward from the Archdiocese include an online or phone reservation system; hosting services for different sectors, including a separate service for seniors (similar to what many retail stores have implemented); encouraging attendance by last name; and asking attendees to line up, with admittance on a first come, first served basis.