May 22, 2020
This afternoon, President Donald Trump declared that all governors should open churches immediately and said that churches should be considered essential businesses. I want to offer some reflection on this and how it affects us in the Florida-Bahamas Synod.
I want to remind you that churches are already listed as essential businesses in Florida. Governor DeSantis does not prevent any of us from worshipping. Because of the separation of church and state, the government cannot prevent us from worshipping, or compel us to worship, at any time. However, it is strongly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Florida Department of Health that in this “Phase 1” of our reopening, we limit public gatherings as much as possible.
In the Florida-Bahamas Synod, my recommendation is that congregations wait until at least “Phase 3” of statewide reopening before they return to in-person worship. When we are finally able to gather, we recommend continuing to follow safe distancing practices, including wearing masks, staying six feet apart, and cleaning and disinfecting the sanctuary after services. The ELCA and our Synod's guidelines are available on our webpage www.fbsynod.com.
We do not recommend our congregations begin to gather at this time, but legally, you can. Most of our congregations have decided not to have in-person services out of concern for the health and safety of their members. Those that have decided to try and have services are encouraged to use social distancing procedures and avoid practices which can contribute to the spread of the virus, such as singing, shaking hands, passing the peace, or distributing Holy Communion.
COVID-19 is a national emergency, but returning to in-person services is not yet a priority at this time. We urge you to continue doing services online for the time being, until we are in “Phase 3” or upon recommendation from the CDC.
I am longing for us to be able to gather together and worship in our sanctuaries. It would be a blessing for us to be together, but as we have seen across the country, congregations who gather become super spreader events where large percentages of the congregation contract the virus. This has happened in worship services, choir rehearsals, and general meetings.
My ultimate recommendation is that we continue to hold off on in-person worship until, at least, “Phase 3” of reopening. For those who have decided to try and have services, we strongly recommend following the safe meeting practices and continuing to uphold social distancing. In all of this we continue to encourage you to pray for each other, for our communities, for our nation and world as we struggle with this pandemic.
The President’s announcement could encourage people to want to follow his advice and open the congregations this weekend. I would strongly recommend against that. I think there is too much risk for a congregation to safely gather this weekend unless they have had a proper amount of time to put policies and procedures in place to protect their members. It would be dangerous to rush in when we have time to plan and make the best decisions for our congregations.
Sisters and Brothers, I continue to thank God for you. Thank you for the way you care for each other and for your congregations in this time.
May God be with you.
Peace and health,
+ Bp. Pedro
Rev. Pedro Suarez, Bishop Florida-Bahamas Synod, ELCA