The number of new active cases of Coronavirus in Benton County has been dropping, and we sincerely hope that trend continues. In addition to that, our 7-day rolling average per the diocese has dropped below the in-person worship threshold this week. Because of all that, we now cautiously feel it is safe to return to in-person worship beginning on March 21st.
There are a few items that need to be addressed as we prepare for gathering again.
First, it is of utmost importance to say that we are still in the midst of a public health crisis. Regardless of how long it has gone on or how tired of it we may be, we are still fighting a deadly virus and although some have been fortunate enough to be vaccinated, we still have a long way to go.
Reopening church does not mean it is totally safe to return, but that hopefully our medical infrastructure can now handle the amount of cases that will occur as we return to normal activities.
It cannot be overstated that attending church is one of the highest risk activities you can partake in. It is a large gathering of people from all over, who have been to many other places, where, possibly, not everyone followed standard safety procedures. You are sitting for an extended amount of time in one room with all of these people. Unlike grocery shopping, where you get in and get out, this is a period of time where you remain in the same place for an extended period.
The following specific guidelines will be enforced when we reopen. These guidelines are taken from the State of Arkansas Department of Health and the Bishop of Arkansas's directives, and are done so based on the most recent available research per the CDC.
We will continue to hold one Sunday morning service, Rite ll, at 10:00 AM, and this service will continue to be live-streamed. If you are not comfortable returning to in-person worship, this option will always be available for you.
You must pre-register to attend the service! At this time, there are only 40 reserved seats available. The website to pre-register will be emailed to you on Monday of each week, and be available until noon Friday of each week. A decision will be made on a weekly basis whether or not the church will be open based on the number of new active cases reported in the county. It may change from week to week so you must sign-up each week. The period of time during which you may pre-register will be from noon Monday until noon Friday. If you do not have access to a computer to sign up, you may call the church office during those same hours. Registration is not guaranteed! If we have a large number of requests each week, we will have to move to an alphabetized or every-other-week system to accommodate everyone.
Links to sign up for in-person worship will be provided on the Calendar page here on the website. We will also share them on our Facebook page.
Let me be clear: I don't like the feeling of having to reserve a spot in church, but the only other option is whoever shows up first gets a spot, and we have to turn people away at the door to try again another time. Pre-registration ensures we don't have that issue. Because we have so many people wanting to come back, and in order to maintain social distancing, we just simply won't have enough space for everyone at every service.
Signs will be posted at all entrances outlining that anyone who is considered 'high risk' by the CDC should seriously consider continuing to worship online. For more information on who is in this category, see this CDC link:
There will also be signs that outline: If in the last 2 days you have had a fever of 100.4 F and/or a cough, had a decrease or loss of smell or taste in the last 14 days, traveled outside of the US, or been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, you will not be able to attend services until your symptoms have subsided for 14 days, or you have been symptom-free for 14 days post travel.
Everyone age 10 and over is required to wear a mask at all times, anywhere in the building. Your mask should remain properly covering your mouth and nose the entire time. The only exceptions to this are the readers assigned for the week while they are reading and Fr. Lowell while he is leading the worship as there will be no one else in the chancel area.
For children under 2 years of age, per CDC guidelines, face coverings are discouraged.
Specific areas of the church will be roped off to restrict traffic flow in those areas and to reduce the amount of cleaning and sanitizing needed to be performed by our cleaning crew. Please abide by these restrictions. The elevator will not be in service. The lower level is off-limits. Please follow directions given by the ushers to be seated.
When you enter you are expected to use the provided hand sanitizer or your own. A limited supply of masks will be on hand, but you are strongly encouraged to bring and wear your own. There will be containers to dispose of anything when you exit.
There is no pre-service sitting in the narthex. When you enter you need to go in directly to the most forward seat available in the nave. There is also no coffee hour afterwards. Please do not congregate to greet or converse with friends. Enter and exit the building as efficiently as possible.
The service leaflet will be placed in the pews prior to the service. Please take them with you and dispose of them in the recycling bin provided. Do not leave them in the pews.
A 6-foot minimum distance must be maintained between households at all times. Seating is marked off on the pews to maintain this.
Households may sit together in a pew. Under no circumstances will anyone be allowed to break the 6-foot rule to accommodate more seating. NO physical contact outside of your household. No handshakes, no hugs, no physical sharing of the peace.
For the time being, we will not have any congregational singing.
Communion in both kinds will be consumed by the priest celebrating the mass. Fr. Lowell and, if needed, another person designated by Fr. Lowell, will distribute the Host to communicants where they are seated in the pews. You may remove your mask long enough to consume the wafer, then return it so that it properly covers your nose and mouth.
We will continue with the pre-shutdown changes also of no holy water in the font, no passing of the collection plates, and not bringing the elements forward.
Certain parts of the service may be shortened or eliminated to help keep the overall length of the service to 45 minutes or less as recommended by the diocese. Your cooperation in entering and exiting the nave efficiently will help us maintain our safety guidelines.
You may leave your offering in the slot on the Treasurer’s Office door when you enter or leave the building. An offering plate will also be left at the back of the sanctuary.
Attendance will be recorded through sign up protocols in order to contact trace should someone who attends a service fall ill with Covid-19.
Our ability to return to in-person worship right now does not guarantee that we stay open no matter what. If Benton County sees a rise in infection rates, the church, per the bishop's directive, will return to online only worship. Our hope is that the trend in case numbers will continue downward, and we will be able to have limited in-person worship on Palm Sunday, during Holy Week, and on Easter.
I am sure there are many more pieces to this puzzle that we will discover as we return and experience these changes. I appreciate your patience and grace in approaching these necessary precautions. St. Theodores is new to in-person Covid style worship. We must all offer a lot of grace and care for each other as this will be outside of all our comfort zones when it applies to worship. This remains a very complicated situation, but together, we will get through this in the safest possible manner. Say extra prayers that our plans will work smoothly, and we will be able to gather safely once again as a family that prays, worships, learns, breaks bread, shares life, hugs neighbors, bears good news, seeks justice, rests, and grows in the Spirit. Amen.