COVID-19 Guidance on Reopening Religious Communities After Shutdown

By: Olivia Wilkinson Katherine Marshall

June 25, 2020

COVID-19 Guidance for Religious Communities and Leaders

In early May 2020, we explored different guidance documents for religious communities in wake of the coronavirus crisis, drawing from the "Faith and COVID-19: Resource Repository" sponsored by the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project. Now that questions about reopening and recovery are at hand, we revisit the topic of guidance documents, reviewing more recent documents and frameworks specifically focused on the challenges of reopening religious sites and resuming in-person gatherings. Some of these documents have general application, obviously including for religious sites and practices, while others are more specifically geared to religious entities. Guidelines in general are evolving as experience suggests both modifications in specific practices and broad guidelines on when and how to return to normal religious life.

Full lockdown on religious worship never occurred in some countries, but such lockdowns were applied in many places. At the national level, therefore, many countries are now in the process of reviewing their situations and deciding whether reopening is appropriate. On June 12 in Kenya, the government appointed an interreligious council to review reopening with the expectation that they will develop guidance on reopening for regular services but also for special ceremonies such as marriages. 

For public health departments and organizations trying to navigate science, public sentiment, laws, and politics, the question of reopening places of worship has special significance. An example is the guidance document on reopening from the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where internal debates resulted in modifications; the process was politicized, with disagreement around the content of the guidance and the reported direct involvement of President Donald Trump. Specifically, wording was removed that discouraged choirs and singing (evidence suggests singing spreads the virus) in order to avoid infringement on “rights protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” regarding freedom of religion and the risk of alienating some religious communities. The Center for American Progress criticized the CDC guidance as an “insufficient resource” and recently released their own guidance. Several states also issued guidance, such as these from Washington and Virginia

Government departments responsible for health and religious affairs in countries around the world are issuing guidance, protocols, circulars, and other such documents, to advise their citizens. In Indonesia, the Religious Affairs Ministry issued a circular at the end of May, reminding houses of worship to “set the best example on curbing the spread of COVID-19."

The WHO has not recently issued specific reopening guidance for places of worship, though such guidance is being prepared. Much of their original guidance was written with varying degrees of openness in mind, as the guidance needed to respond to different situations in countries across the world. For example, their religious mass gathering decision tree remains relevant and of use when deciding to reopen or not. 

Some religious institutions have issued guidance relevant to their communities. For example, the Muslim Council of Britain has extensive materials guiding the reopening of mosques, including risk assessment templates, communication plans, posters to place around the mosque, checklists, and a nine-step guide to reopening mosques safely. They even have a shared drive online with downloadable documents such as a cleaning schedule rotation. Wheaton’s Humanitarian Development Institute and the National Association of Evangelicals were one of the earliest and most prepared groups in launching reopening guidance. They have a website at which you can download their materials, memorably named "Reopening the Church." Materials include decision trees for individuals and institutions to help decide when to return to or reopen their church, checklists for reopening, and a step-by-step guide to reopening services. 

Faith-inspired organizations have pivoted to different phases of their response. Rather than reopening guides, organizations are honing in on key issue areas, such as phase 2 planning from World Vision and secondary impacts of COVID-19 threatening children, or ACT Alliance’s “Briefing Paper: Gender and Faith Perspectives on COVID-19” (see also Side by Side’s resource page covering several guides on faith, gender, and COVID-19). Other non-faith organizations in the humanitarian and development sector have also issued guidance relevant to religious communities, such as guidelines on “COVID-19: Hinduism and Management of the Dead” released by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

We have seen a shift from our earlier analysis to the present. As the diversity of situations becomes increasingly clear and with complex linkages among different policy elements, guidance materials are becoming more targeted to their audiences and their subject areas. As public health departments and religious institutions provide guidance on reopening, and NGOs focus on special areas of concern, many look to country-specific instructions from national authorities on reopening rather than on global guidance documents.

To receive updates on important additions to the "Faith and COVID-19: Resource Repository," sign up here. This post is adapted from the June 24 email update on "Guidelines Part II: Reopening After Shutdowns."

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