How to Prepare for a COVID Secure Church
As the Government continues to relax lockdown restrictions in England, churches are finally able to start planning to resume services in person. Now is a good time to start thinking through how you can re-open your church building safely and legally.
Much of what follows will have pastoral and theological implications, as well as practical and legal ones. Therefore, these steps are for prayerful consideration by the whole leadership team.
Each church must make its own decision based on its specific needs and convictions, and there will be a range of views within each church on what should be done. We must be prepared to show grace to those we disagree with and recognise that there isn’t a single ‘correct’ pattern. Effective and transparent communication between leaders and congregations will be essential. We must also remember that there may be a difference between the level of risk we accept for ourselves and that which we explicitly or implicitly expect others to take.
We must also be prepared for Government guidance to continue to change as the situation evolves – and to adapt accordingly. You can read the Government guidance for the safe use of places of worship in England (published 29 June) on the gov.uk website.
Tackling a problem of this scale will require a comprehensive approach; at some point someone (or better, a team) will need to conduct a robust risk assessment. This does not mean producing a huge document but it does mean some sort of structured approach, otherwise important points will be overlooked.
The Association of Church Accountants and Treasurers (ACAT) has developed a training course in risk and safety for churches which we hope to launch online soon. All FIEC affiliated churches are part of a block membership with ACAT so this may be something for you to take advantage of.
Minimising the Transmission Risk
Now we come to the nuts and bolts of being ‘COVID secure’.
Consider the following:
- Numbers: how many can you accommodate? Which rooms can be used for what? How do you determine who can attend (eg. ticketing)?
- Crowd management: can you maintain 2 metres distance? How do you manage entry and egress (eg. one-way systems, staggered arrivals/departures)? How do you maintain social distance (eg. placement of chairs, cordoning off, demarcation on the floor)? People should be encouraged to move on promptly after a service; what alternatives can you use for social interaction (eg. ‘coffee time’ on Zoom afterwards)?
- Cleaning before and after services: what needs cleaning? Who will do it? Who will check?
- Hygiene: where should you provide hand soap, sanitiser and surface cleaner? What about reminding people not to touch their faces?
- Minimising contact with ‘touchpoints’: do you prop doors open to avoid door handles? What about fire doors?
- Self-isolation: how do you ensure people with symptoms stay away? How do you respond if you spot someone coughing (and do you know if there is another reason, for example, hay fever)?
- Ventilation: can you maintain a natural draft? Do you need fans? Will you need to review arrangements when the weather gets cooler?
- Personal Protective Equipment: people may choose to wear masks - how can they be helped to do so? Can you provide gloves for handling food, drink, and cash offerings?
- Toilet facilities: should these be allocated to seating ‘zones’? Do you encourage people to use their facilities at home before coming out? How will you ensure they are cleaned regularly and thoroughly? How can you ensure social distancing for queues?
- Food and drink: can you safely serve refreshments? What about Communion?
- Music: congregational singing and chanting are not permitted, so what are the alternatives? Instruments? Recordings?
- Remote attendance: how do you ensure people don’t feel under pressure to attend if they are unsure? Can remote arrangements still be maintained, for example, live streaming your service?
- Contact details: how will you record attendance and capture contact details to assist with NHS Test and Trace?
- Offering: can you avoid cash offerings and encourage contactless/online giving? Where this is not possible, how will you safely collect cash?
- BYOB: how do you encourage people to ‘Bring Your Own Bible’ (and hymn books, if you use them)?
- Baptisms and weddings: can you follow the government guidance for small marriages (30 people maximum attendance with social distancing)? What about baptisms (splashing permitted but “full immersion should be avoided”)?
Managing Your Other Risks
After you’ve thought about minimising the transmission of the coronavirus, you may find there are still several other risks arising from leaving your building underused, or completely unused, for the extended lockdown period:
- General maintenance and hygiene: it would be best to conduct some general inspections, checking in particular for water ingress, high levels of dust (which can be a respiratory irritant and a fire hazard), or just something rotting at the bottom of a bin! Also, run the taps for a while to clear stagnant water from the pipes to minimise legionella risk.
- Lapsed inspections and service visits: arrange any needed inspections such as on gas systems, electricals, portable appliance testing, firefighting equipment, legionella, asbestos, alarm tests or statutory inspections on stairlifts.
- Risk assessments: are your activities going to be sufficiently altered by your COVID secure measures that their risk assessments are no longer valid? Are you planning to run activities in a different manner that requires a new risk assessment (eg. outdoor events)? Templates and guidance are available from the Government’s Health and Safety Executive website.
- Resilience: how resilient are you if a key person (eg. the pastor, or whoever runs the live streaming) suddenly has to self-isolate? Do you have ‘reserves’ for the key roles? Do you have a plan if the entire congregation needs to self-isolate due to a positive case?
Churches in Rented Venues
Many churches rent a venue managed by a third party so these considerations may be different for them. Both you and the third party will have a duty of care, and you exercise yours partly by conducting appropriate due diligence on the safety arrangements the venue puts into effect.
In particular, you won’t know if their risk assessments will be appropriate for your specific activities until you review them.
It’s worth starting those conversations now if you haven’t already.
This article is unlikely to cover every eventuality but should provide you with a starting point for your own risk assessments so that you can make a decision which appropriately balances the competing desires to come together again as a physical church, and also to keep our congregations safe.
Please also remember that Government guidance is fluid and churches will need to adapt accordingly – even if that means going back to the full lockdown conditions.
You can read the Government guidance for the safe use of places of worship (published 29 June) on the gov.uk website.