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Faith Groups In St. Louis Region Continue Virtual And Social Distanced Services As COVID Cases Spike

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Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Local faith groups continue virtual and socially distanced services as COVID-19 cases and deaths surge.

As COVID-19 cases and deaths surge in the region, many faith groups will continue to offer virtual services.

On Tuesday, St. Louis County’s new restrictions took effect, including a 25% occupancy limit on religious organizations. That’s down from 50%.

Congregation Temple Israel, a synagogue in Creve Coeur, had closed off the building to the public early on in the pandemic. It had also put in place a task force, which meets on a regular basis, to reevaluate its own health guidelines, changes in the community and health guidelines put out by the county health department.

Senior Rabbi Amy Feder said while the latest guidelines won’t really change what’s already been established, the congregation will continue to follow all guidance in order to keep staff, children and the community at large safe.

“To be perfectly honest, we were already following these guidelines ourselves,” Feder said. “We have really kept relatively strict guidelines from the very beginning.”

All worship services and classes are held on Zoom or livestreamed. Feder said that while it has been an adjustment, many in her congregation are understanding.

“Everyone knows people who have dealt with COVID before,” Feder said. “And whether it was very serious or not, everyone wants to do what we can to keep our community safe. And I think reading what Sam Page has put out feels very reasonable.”

The only time the synagogue has been open during the pandemic is for life cycle events including weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. Guests have been limited to 20 people.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis is following a similar plan. A statement from the archdiocese said Mass has reverted back to 25% capacity, while all other gatherings at Catholic churches in the city and county have been limited to 10. Parishioners experiencing COVID-19 symptoms are asked to stay home.

The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri also updated its guidelines in light of the county’s new restrictions. The diocese had already put a hold on large in-person church services, allowing only 10 people inside the church at a time to livestream the service, for in-person worship or for prayer.

Bishop Deon Johnson said shifting to virtual services and adhering to guidelines is paying off.

“We have had no significant congregations that have had outbreaks,” Johnson said. “We’ve obviously had some parishioners in congregations who’ve come down and tested positive and some clergy who’ve tested positive. But because of the way our restrictions have been set up, none of those turned into superspreader events.”

While there has been some fatigue among parishioners, Johnson said virtual services have brought people closer together.

“People are tired of virtual everything at this point,” Johnson said. “But the other part of it is that I think more people are recognizing that it allows us to be a lot more connected than we have been in the past.”

In Islam, like other faith groups, building community by getting together and praying is important, said Ghazala Hayat, the chairperson of the public affairs committee for the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis.

The foundation operates two mosques, Daar-ul-Islam in west county and Masjid Bilal in the city.

“A lot of people who are a little bit elderly said, ‘I’ll come, I’ll be fine,’” Hayat said. “And you understood where they were coming from. But you also had to make sure that they understood that there’s no way they’ll know that they’ll be fine, because of the way this virus spreads. So they have understood. And unfortunately since then, some community members did get affected by COVID. We lost a few people because of COVID.”

Because of the reality of the virus and the spike in cases, the foundation implemented its own guidelines in accordance with the county’s. People are encouraged not to come to Jumuah, or Friday prayer, if they aren’t obligated to, are older than 65 or are experiencing symptoms.

Those who do come have their temperatures taken, and they must wear masks, social distance and bring their own prayer rug. And the imam is conducting Khutbah — or services — via livestream.

While the shift has been a challenge, Hayat said leaders in the community continue to push the message that adhering to safety precautions doesn’t compromise a person's faith.

“We are commanded to take care of our health and listen to experts,” Hayat said. “And also most important, this way we are also protecting other people. That's the basic tenet of our faith, that you have to protect other people. You cannot hurt anybody because of our actions.”

Rabbi Feder of Temple Israel shares a similar sentiment.

“As Jews or people of faith, our overarching priority is pikuach nefesh, which is the saving of life,” she said. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure that every life is given value and every life is protected as much as possible.”

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

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