Church Update on Covid-19 and In-Person Services

May 14, 2020

Dear Church Families:

First and foremost, we miss you guys and hope that you all are doing well. It seems like it’s been forever since we’ve been able to see each other and gather together. We have missed this terribly. While it hasn’t been quite forever, it has been approximately 9 weeks since we’ve been under various Executive Orders from our Governors in Virginia and North Carolina to Stay-at-Home. During this same time, our Bishop in the Holston Conference, Dindy Taylor, has suspended all in-person worship services. These decisions weren’t easy decisions to make but were made in the interest of slowing the spread of Covid-19 and in keeping people safe.

As many of you are aware, the Governors of Virginia and North Carolina are moving toward Phase One of loosening the restrictions of their respective Stay-at-Home Executive Orders. At the time of the writing of this letter, North Carolina has already entered Phase One while Virginia is scheduled to enter it on May 15. We have a unique situation in the 3 congregations that we serve. As you all are aware, Savannah United Methodist Church sits right on the North Carolina border; and the greater percentage of people who attend live in North Carolina. This makes it necessary to provide this point of clarification. The Holston Conference is comprised of churches throughout eastern Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and a tiny corner of northern Georgia. While Savannah sits on the North Carolina border, it’s address is in Virginia and its membership is in the Holston Conference. This means that all decisions and actions related to following Stay-at-Home orders and compliance with Phase One and beyond, falls under Virginia’s guidelines. We wanted to point this out to avoid confusion due to differing plans that are being proposed and followed by the different states.

Before we talk about how we are going to proceed moving forward, we want to share with you the information we are using to make this decision. First, here’s what the loosening of the Stay-at-Home restrictions looks like in Virginia during Phase One for religious services:

Mandatory Requirements:

Religious services must strictly adhere to the following requirements[1]:

  • Occupancy shall be limited to no more than 50% of the lowest occupancy load on the certificate of occupancy of the room or facility in which the services are conducted.
  • Individuals attending religious services must be seated at least six feet apart at all times and must maintain physical distancing. Family members, as defined in Executive Order 61, Order of Public Health Emergency Three[2], may be seated together. Mark seating in six-foot increments.
  • It is recommended that persons attending religious services be encouraged to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth at all times. See CDC Use of Cloth Face Coverings guidance for more detailed information[3].
  • No items must be passed to or between attendees, who are not family members as defined in EO 61, Order of Public Health Emergency Three.
  • Items used to distribute food or beverages must be disposable and used only once.
  • A thorough cleaning and disinfection of frequently contacted surfaces must be conducted prior to and following any religious service.
  • Post signage at the entrance that states that no one with a fever or symptoms of COVID-19 or known exposure to a COVID-19 case in the prior 14 days is permitted.
  • Post signage to provide public health reminders regarding social distancing, gatherings, options for high risk individuals, and staying home if sick.
  • If any place of worship cannot adhere to the above requirements, it must not conduct in-person services.

The document that contains these and other requirements can be accessed by clicking on the link in the footnote at the bottom of the page, or by copying that link and pasting it into your browser. In addition to these mandatory requirements, this document contains numerous other suggested best practices that would need to be considered and possibly implemented in order to maximize the safety of everyone attending. We have been asked about Drive-In services as an option. In order to do Drive-In services correctly, you need to have an FM transmitter to transmit the sound to the car stereos of those present. We currently do not have this capability.  

The second source of information that we are using to make this decision is the number of Covid-19 cases in our area. Here’s a breakdown in Virginia[4] and North Carolina[5] at the time of the writing of this letter:

Location# of Cases# of Hospitalizations# of Deaths
Galax City6410
Carroll County3920
Grayson County1810
Alleghany County90
Surry County471
Ashe County160
Wilkes County2621

Except for Wilkes County, on the surface these numbers don’t seem that bad; but here’s what we have to keep in mind. Over the course of the past 14 days, the number of cases have grown significantly in Galax, Carroll County, and Grayson County. This can be attributed to a couple of things. First, Covid-19 is now being spread through Community Transmission in our area[6]. This means that you no longer have to come into contact with someone who has it to become infected, you can pick it up out in the community. Second, we are now doing testing in our communities. With more testing comes discovering more people who have the virus. Most of these folks probably had no symptoms or very mild symptoms at the least; but they are positive, nonetheless. One thing to remember is that cases do not drop off when they’ve recovered; so this is not the number of current active cases. However, we can track the number of new cases by tracking how much this number increases day to day; and it is increasing rapidly. The good news is the very small number of hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 in our communities.

The final source of information that we are using to make this decision comes through the direction of our Bishop. On March 13, Bishop Taylor suspended all in-person worship services in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Stay-at-Home orders issued by the Governors of Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia. On April 30, Bishop Taylor issued a follow-up statement reinforcing the continued suspension of in-person worship services[7]. Ultimately, regardless of what restrictions are lifted by our governors, we cannot move forward with in-person worship services until Bishop Taylor lifts her suspension. Even then, we will be responsible for following her guidance in carrying these services out. We know that the decision to reinstitute in-person services is one that is being taken very seriously.

The decision on how to continue carrying out our weekly worship services at Out of the Box, Mt. Vale, and Savannah is one that we take very seriously, as well. As your pastors, our greatest concern is your spiritual growth. One of our other greatest concerns is your safety. Between the 3 congregations, we have a significant number of members and attenders who are high-risk[8]. In light of all of this information, we have decided to continue offering our services Online only for the time being. This allows us to continue gathering together each week and to grow spiritually, while also helping to protect those at high risk. This decision is made out of our deep love and concern for you all and for our community. We look forward to the time when we can gather together again in one place; but until then, we are thankful that we have the ability to be together safely through technology.

If you have any questions or concerns, please reach out to us. We are praying for each of you, we miss you, and we love you.

Pastors David and Ronnie