As people start to return to churches and other houses of worship in the coming weeks, they may be surprised by how different it is.
Masks and temperature checks may be part of entering a sanctuary now.
A reservation may even be required.
That's how The Garden, a downtown Bakersfield church, will be ensuring that it keeps its services limited to an acceptable level under state guidelines laid out Monday for reopening houses of worship.
Senior Pastor David Goh said the church will be doing a "soft launch" in the coming weeks, and part of that includes rolling out a reservation system on a mobile app for families to sign up for one of several services. The app also will go through a symptom check and a series of questions about exposure to someone with COVID-19.
Goh said a majority of church members indicated in a poll they wanted to return to church despite whatever new procedures were put in place. And now he wants to make sure they're prepared for how different the experience will be.
This Sunday, The Garden will not hold services and instead will train volunteers in new procedures. The next two Sundays after that, children 12 and over and their adult family members will be invited to attend church together. By June 21, the church hopes to restart its program for younger children, which will require about two to three times as many volunteers as in the past, Goh said.
"We really appreciate the concern of the governor to listen to the houses of worship to return but at the same time there’s a lot to adhere to," Goh said of the guidelines.
Churchgoers will be seated far apart, and they can’t greet each other with handshakes or hugs.
"It’s really different for what should be a community experience," Goh said.
Kern County public health officials gave local houses of worship the OK to restart in-person services under guidelines issued by the state Monday, but it was unclear by Tuesday afternoon how many would do so right away.
"Kern County Public Health approves of local churches reopening, and strongly encourages our faith-based community to fully and carefully implement the recommendations from California Department of Public Health to protect against COVID-19,” county public health spokeswoman Michelle Corson said Tuesday. "There are no additional steps for local churches to take other than implementing the modifications."
Among the modifications for reopening, churches must limit capacity to 25 percent of a building's capacity or 100 people, whichever is less. Choral groups are not recommended, nor is singing or verbal recitations and worshippers are urged to wear masks.
“We have a lot of questions, so we’re still wading through all the guidelines so we can open correctly and wisely,” said Dana Yarian, an administrative assistant for Laurelglen Bible Church in Bakersfield.
About 500 people attend service on a typical Sunday morning at the Ashe Road church. Yarian said church leaders met by phone Tuesday to discuss reopening but weren’t sure if the state’s 100-person limit was per building, so the church could hold services simultaneously in several locations on campus, or if the limit was per campus, which would require five separate services to accommodate everyone.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, which oversees 88 parishes in eight counties, has also not yet announced when it will restart in-person Mass, though local Catholic churches are open for prayer.
Vice Chancellor Cheryl Sarkisian said a task force appointed by Bishop Joseph V. Brennan weeks ago has been working on the particulars of how and when Mass will resume. Sarkisian said an announcement will likely be made in seven to 10 days using church websites and social media platforms and the diocese station, KNXT. Churches won't hold services until then.
Meanwhile, Chabad of Bakersfield has decided not to reopen yet, said Esther Schlanger, the co-director of the synagogue.
The center will continue to hold online services as it has done since the coronavirus shutdown took effect.
“We're not comfortable yet,” Schlanger said. “We're going to wait it out. We don't want to get anyone sick.”
While the state guidelines lay out how to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it is strongly recommended in the document that places of worship continue to conduct remote services for vulnerable populations, including older adults and those with health problems.
The new guidelines came a week before many churches around the state had planned to reopen, with or without the state’s OK.