Churches, synagogues and mosques throughout Santa Clara County are taking small steps to return to normal this month, with limited in-person religious services returning for the first time since the coronavirus shut down religious gatherings in March.
But some religious leaders say it's been tough trying to meet the county's public health orders, which place tight rules on the services. Gatherings must take place outdoors and are capped at 25 people at any given time, and safe social distancing must be practiced at all times — a tall order in intimate religious ceremonies.
Some religious institutions, notably the Mountain View Buddhist Temple, have instead decided to wait out the limited reopening, abstaining from any in-person gatherings until COVID-19 presents a smaller threat to the health of communities of faith.
Santa Clara County public health officials announced last month that places of worship could resume in-person gatherings starting on June 5, but subject to significant restrictions. The whole event must take place outdoors and can have no more than 25 people present at any given time, and hosts must keep track of every participant in the event that someone later tests positive for COVID-19.
One of the largest religious organizations in the region, the Diocese of San Jose, announced that it wasn't ready to open churches to the public immediately on June 5, pumping the brakes in favor of a gradual reopening on a parish-by-parish basis. Bishop Oscar Cantu released a statement on June 5 announcing that the consensus was that outdoor public worship could resume as early as June 15, but only if every participating church requires face coverings, physical distancing and requires each participant to sanitize their hands.
"It is essential that our in-person worship not be the cause of further outbreaks of infection, and so we will insist on these safety measures," Cantu said. "If infection rates and hospitalizations do not spike, then we can expect the limitations on numbers and place of worship to be modified in due time."
What that soft opening looked like over the weekend varied from one parish to the next, said Carolina Scipioni, a spokeswoman for the diocese. Some held small services in the parking lot, while her church took advantage of its outdoor garden area. Communion is carried out with careful precision to maintain 6 feet of social distance as well — with attendees accepting the communion from the presider and backing off before consuming it.
Some churches are taking a more tech-savvy approach to the health restrictions and requiring digital registration for all attendees, she said, but all liturgies are following the basic guidelines set forth by the county.
"We put all the protocols in place, and have been making sure all the parishes have those things ready before we reopen," Scipioni said. "Our priority has always been safety for people."
Elderly residents and others considered "at risk" for severe illness are being asked to stay home and not participate in church services, though churches have done an "amazing job" reaching out in different ways to stay in touch with seniors and those who are lonely, Scipioni said.
Taking a more cautious approach is the Mountain View Buddhist Temple on Shoreline Boulevard, which announced on May 26 that it had no intention of reopening through at least Sept. 6 out of concern for the health and safety of visitors, ministerial staff and the larger surrounding community.
At a panel discussion with faith-based organizations last week, John Arima of the Buddhist temple told county supervisors that the plan is to hold off until well into stage 3 of the recovery road map to avoid transmission of the coronavirus. That means no ceremonies, outdoor or otherwise, he said, and a renewed focus on buying protective equipment and sanitizers.
"We did donate our gloves and sanitizers that we now have to restock ourselves now," Arima said.
Others urged the county to take a more lax approach to indoor services. Imam Tahir Anwar of the South Bay Islamic Association said most mosques have resumed two of the five daily prayers as of Saturday in the parking lot, and that some of the larger facilities would be better suited for services even with the social distancing requirements.
He pointed to one San Jose facility that has a 10,000-square-foot warehouse with a 20-foot ceiling with massive shutters that would provide plenty of room, yet cannot be used under the current public health order.
"We're trying to see if, and I know it's a large ask, to see if there can be a tailored or customized solution so that we can have the prayer services inside rather than outside," Anwar said.