Athens churches move forward with re-opening amid rising COVID-19 cases

From the WRBL Internship Assignment Desk

This story was produced as part of the WRBL 2020 Summer Intern program

A masked churchgoer prays at an in-person service. (Photo Credit: Cornerstone Church of Athens)

ATHENS, Ga. (WRBL) — As Georgia reports record increases in COVID-19 cases, several Athens churches have announced their intention to take additional steps towards reopening. After months of online services or drive-in events, some of Athens’s largest churches are announcing the return of in-person worship services.

In a video message titled “Cornerstone Entering COVID Phase 2,” Pastor Scott Sheppard outlined his plans to hold socially distanced services at Cornerstone Church of Athens. Cornerstone’s “Phase 2” plan, which was implemented in early July, also includes the return of group gatherings like children’s services and youth group events.

“Our leadership feels like it’s time to start regathering the community and engaging one another again in a safe environment,” Sheppard said. “We just wanted to begin to pull people back together again and cultivate those relationships that matter so much to us.”

Cornerstone requires members to register for in-person services to ensure limited attendance and allow for social distancing. Church facilities are sanitized between services, and church staff members are required to wear masks.

Athens Church has also resumed in-person services, and they offer several options for members who want to attend. In an attempt to enforce social distancing, Athens Church offers services at three locations. Members can attend a service in the church auditorium or watch a livestream of the sermon from the lawn or church theater.

While religious institutions are typically exempt from state and local mask mandates, Athens Church has taken additional steps to encourage attendees to wear masks. Face coverings are optional for the auditorium and lawn services, but Athens Church requires masks for members who want to attend the theater service.

“We’re making that an option in order to give you peace of mind as you step back into your routine at church in the way that makes you feel most comfortable,” Athens Church Guest Services Director Rachel Carter announced in a July 17 video update.

For other churches, outdoor services remain a popular option. Watkinsville First Baptist, whose membership includes hundreds of UGA students, announced their plan to continue outdoor services through the month of July.

Watkinsville First Baptist staff say they consulted with medical advisors to guide their steps toward gradual reopening.

In an online bulletin announcing their decision to hold outdoor services, Watkinsville First Baptist staff said, “The growing consensus is that if people are going to leave their homes, it is safer to be outside with fresh air, fewer touchpoints, and more space between people.”

Even as area churches gradually return to in-person services, many traditions have been suspended or updated. Many local churches have suspended contact-heavy elements like offering buckets or print bulletins.

In an effort to limit the spread of germs, Classic City Church provides members with individually packaged communions.

“We are here to increase connection, not contact,” Classic City Church staff announced in their guidelines for reopening. Attendees are encouraged to wear masks and pews are marked to encourage social distancing.

While they take steps towards reopening, these churches all continue to offer online services for members who feel uncomfortable returning to in-person services. Any attendees who are immunocompromised or displaying symptoms of COVID-19 are encouraged to remain home and participate in livestreams.

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