Some San Jose churches to keep COVID rules after state reopens
Members of Awakening Church in San Jose gather for an outdoor service at Del Mar High School. Photo courtesy of Naseem Khalili.

    With the state set to lift COVID-19 restrictions next week, some San Jose church leaders say they will continue to require attendees to wear masks and social distance for in-person services.

    Lorianna Gardere, operations pastor at Bible Way Christian Center, said the center has held weekly virtual services since March 2020. The first in-person service will take place on June 20.

    “Our church is like a family, you miss your family when you don’t get a chance to see them,” Gardere said. “There is a certain synergy that happens when people are together worshipping, it creates this feeling that can’t be duplicated over a screen. I look forward to feeling that presence again.”

    The Santa Clara County Health Department announced on May 18 that places of worship could operate indoors with social distancing guidelines and mask requirements at 50% capacity after the county moved to the least-restrictive yellow tier of the state’s reopening plan. Places of worship were previously able to operate outdoors at 25% capacity.

    Beginning June 15, the state will lift social distancing restrictions and capacity limits for businesses and activities such as restaurants, stores and places of worship.

    Gardere said although social distancing will no longer be required when the Bible Way Christian Center returns to in-person service, the center will still ask attendees to wear masks and remain six feet apart from one another. Sanitizing stations will also be set up throughout the center, and workers will thoroughly clean the sanctuary after the service.

    While some members are hesitant to come back to the center, Gardere said most are eager to finally worship in person.

    “Some people are apprehensive. They want to know what the guidelines are, what safety measures are in place,” Gardere said. “But most of our congregation—they’re ready (to come back).”

    Gardere isn’t the only San Jose religious leader who plans to implement safety guidelines for in-person services. Naseem Khalili, spokesperson for Awakening Church, said the church plans to adhere to social distancing guidelines for its outdoor services, and will ease masking rules for those who are vaccinated.

    “We (require) masks when you’re up and walking around talking to people,” Khalili said. “When you’re sitting at your seat just listening to the sermon, people are free to take their mask off and listen.”

    Awakening Church has held outdoor services at Del Mar High School since February. From February to May, attendees needed to register online through the church website, and 150 people are allowed at each service.

    Khalili said she looks forward to reuniting with members now that people are more comfortable getting together.

    “I think we definitely see the comfort level going up as far as vaccination and everything,” Khalili said. “It’s been a really joyful and encouraging spirit… everyone is excited to reunite and see each other again.”

    The struggle over worshipping in person in the COVID era put Santa Clara County in the national limelight after a San Jose church refused to close indoor services despite county and state guidelines. The pastor, Mike McClure, faced jail time and the county sued the church.

    While most religious leaders didn’t flout health orders last year, they expressed frustration with state restrictions that required them to screen congregants for temperature and symptoms, stop passing offering plates and limit group singing.

    Colin Ford, senior pastor of Alum Rock Christian Church, said his church is not looking to immediately lift capacity restrictions and social distancing regulations in the coming weeks.

    Alum Rock opened indoor services back in March when Santa Clara County moved to the orange tier, allowing places of worship to open at 50% capacity indoors. Ford said workers will still do temperature checks and require face masks.

    He said changing the church safety guidelines will depend on how many people in the congregation get vaccinated.

    “The more people get vaccinated the less of an issue it’s going to be,” Ford said. “We still definitely want to be aware of what’s happening, but we’re hoping as the months go by, (COVID-19) is eventually going to die a sudden death.”

    Contact Stephanie Lam at [email protected] or follow @StephCLam on Twitter.

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