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SALT LAKE CITY — Churches are allowed to resume operations under new Utah guidelines for COVID-19, but they must still observe social distancing, officials clarified Wednesday.
Those social distancing measures include allowing for a 6-foot space around worshippers, retired Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, acting director for the Utah Department of Health, said Wednesday.
“If they keep that distancing between family groups and make sure that they’re following those guidelines, they can open,” Burton said.
How Utah religious institutions plan to move forward
In a video posted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Wednesday afternoon, President Russell M. Nelson said church meetings and temple ceremonies would not resume yet.
Church leaders are continuing to monitor the latest information and will determine how to move forward with gatherings in meetinghouses and temples, President Nelson said. Safety of church members is of "utmost concern," he said, and leaders will "continue to be prayerful and proceed with an abundance of caution."
President Nelson added that even though church meetings and ceremonies are on hold right now, temple ordinances "are of eternal significance" and need to be performed.
"We will clearly communicate step by step when and where such gatherings and other church-sponsored activities may be resumed," President Nelson said.
Church leaders are also currently working to readjust missionary service, President Nelson said.
He assured church members that “wonderful days are ahead.”
“Thank you for serving and loving one another as the Savior would have us do,” he said. “We are grateful for the helpful direction that government health and civic leaders have provided to keep us safe.”
Rev. Joseph Delka, of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said formal announcements about services moving forward will be made during the cathedral’s live-streamed Masses over the weekend.
The current plan is to resume the normal Mass schedule on Monday, but the plan is subject to change, Rev. Delka said in an email. Precautions have been put in place for proper social distancing and sanitation within the cathedral, he added.
The cathedral is also working on a plan to have parishioners sign up to attend a specific Mass, which may help with contact tracing if necessary in the future, Rev. Delka said. People who are at-risk for COVID-19 are still encouraged to stay home, and Masses will continue being live-streamed for those unable to attend in person, he said.
“Obviously, this is a complex issue and we want to do our best to keep everyone as safe as possible,” Rev. Delka said.
Rabbi Avremi Zippel, of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, said the congregation's tentative plan is to hold the first in-person services during the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, May 29-30. However, services will be extremely limited and leaders will be asking worshippers to make reservations to ensure the congregation will adhere to the state's guidelines.
“We are planning on taking every precaution to make sure we adhere to social distance guidelines," Rabbi Zippel said.
The Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake is not yet at the point where leaders feel comfortable resuming in-person worship services, Imam Yasir Butt said.
"In our services, people are really close to each other, they stand close together. I don’t think anyone has the ability to regulate (the social distancing) guidelines," Butt said.
Muslims are currently celebrating Ramadan, a holy month of fasting and prayer, which continues through May 23.
A committee that is headed by the Islamic society's own doctor will decide when in-person worship services can resume, Imam Butt said.
“The last thing we want to do is be the epicenter of the second wave," he said.
Strict social distancing regulations for places of worship
Wednesday, Burton recommended that churches should map out seating inside their buildings to help people observe a 6-foot distance while inside.
That recommendation is also outlined in the state's updated phased health guidelines, a document within the Utah Leads Together plan that details best practices for individuals, businesses and others in each of the state's color-coded phases.
People who are at higher risk for the disease are still advised to stay at home.
Churches won't be allowed to resume normal services until Utah transitions to the green "normal risk" category of the Utah Leads Together plan.
Since the more spread-out spacing will mean fewer people will be able to sit inside churches at any given time, some smaller churches may need to hold multiple services to accommodate worshippers, Burton said.
Utah transitioned to the "orange" moderate risk level for COVID-19 last week, which loosened some social distancing restrictions in the state, including allowing gatherings of up to 20 people.
Previously, gatherings were only allowed for up to 10 people. However, the state's public health guidelines stipulate that a 20-person gathering can occur so long as it is between private families or friends, and such a gathering is not being overseen by a formal organization.
Churches can have more than 20 people as long as they follow the 6-foot distance rule, Burton added.
In addition to the 6-foot social distancing rule, people worshipping in churches are still advised to take extreme precautions. They should also wear face coverings if in a setting where social distancing is difficult to maintain, and limit interactions to those within their own household, according to the state's framework.
Contributing: Ryan Miller, KSL.com