Local churches navigate pandemic as Easter arrives

A church service of 40 people does not sound like a lot, but for Pastor Armon Lowery of Mt. Zura Full Gospel Baptist Church, it is groundbreaking. He is allowing 40 congregants to worship inside on Easter Sunday—the church’s largest indoor gathering in more than a year.

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic kickstarted a technology driven campaign for local churches to reach out to their parishioners via Facebook and Zoom, Lowery said he is following the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) new guidelines for safe interactions for fully vaccinated individuals.

In the parking lot across the street from the church, vehicles line up to hear Lowery’s message at 9 a.m. each Sunday. And in the quiet town of Newberry, Lowery’s voice carries through the surrounding neighborhood. Under a tent in front of the church sit speakers and sound system aimed at those cars.

Parishioner Tony Larkin, 83, is dressed to the nines even though he is listening to the service from his pickup truck. “I dress for God,” Larkin said. But he feels safer taking part in the service from the comfort of his truck.

Alena Lawson, administrative assistant for the church, runs the technology that allows the service to reach the parking lot. She also oversees the Facebook live and Zoom platforms.

“We do Zoom and had about 20 on this morning,” Lawson said. “Next week we are in person with limited social distancing. It’s the first time having 40 people, and they are signing a waiver.”

With Facebook and Zoom, Lawson said Pastor Lowery’s messages has started to reach more people, including viewers in Minnesota and Georgia.

Mt. Zura Baptist Church sign

“They can still hear the word and some of them support the finances,” she said.

Lowery said the church will continue to offer outdoor services.

“We’re still going to do outside, still doing virtual,” he said. “We want to be safe and we want people who have been vaccinated, including myself, to be able to come to service next week. We will follow CDC guidance.”

The CDC released guidance for fully vaccinated people and visiting safely with others on March 8. Fully vaccinated is defined as “two weeks after receiving the last required dose of vaccine.”

“We know that people want to get vaccinated so they can get back to doing the things they enjoy with the people they love,” said CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky in when announcing the new guidance. “There are some activities that fully vaccinated people can begin to resume now in their own homes. Everyone—even those who are vaccinated—should continue with all mitigation strategies when in public settings. As the science evolves and more people get vaccinated, we will continue to provide more guidance to help fully vaccinated people safely resume more activities.”

The CDC guidelines for fully vaccinated people are:

  • Visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart.
  • Visit with unvaccinated people from one other household indoors without wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart, if everyone in the other household is at low risk for severe disease.
  • Refrain from quarantine and testing if they do not have symptoms of COVID-19 after contact with someone who has COVID-19.

The CDC also issued guidance specifically for churches.

At Queen of Peace Catholic Church (QOP) in Gainesville, the pews can accommodate 1,500 parishioners.

But according to Glen Vassou, parish administrator, the services are being limited to 500-600 attendees so the church can leave every other pew empty. Vassou said there are TVs mounted outside of the main church that will live stream the masses and that will allow for about 100 people to view the mass.

“We also have overflow space in the hall,” Vassou said. “These are all back up plans to host everyone throughout the four upcoming services.”

Queen of Peace priest

Vassou said that Queen of Peace from day one of the COVID-19 pandemic started broadcasting mass on Facebook live. The church recommends that those not ready to come back to in-person mass continue to participate online. The church also delivers spiritual communion for those watching from home.

There are two rooms that can hold families who have a member who is immune compromised, Vassou said. The families that use them can see mass through the glass.

“Father Jeff was a smart man when he built the church,” Vassou said. Father Jeff McGowan retired in 2018 and is credited with starting a school and expanding the Queen of Peace (QOP) Church.

As Holy Week events and services lead up to the Easter Sunday mass, Vassou said the parish is excited to have Bishop Felipe Estévez attend the Easter Vigil at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

Even the chapel, which is not used for daily mass, will have chairs turned around to face the church so more people can participate.

Face masks and social distancing are required at every QOP event. Click here to see the complete list of the church’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“Our Queen of Peace safety guidelines are in keeping with the most current guidance from civil and public health authorities and are in alignment with the bishops of Florida,” the church website says. “Our procedures may be updated as we pass through different phases of recovery from the pandemic. Thank you in advance for your understanding and cooperation. It is crucial that we approach this next phase with patient, loving and charitable hearts.”

Upcoming masses are as follows:

  • Holy Thursday, April 1, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at 7 p.m.
  • Good Friday, April 2, Stations of the Cross a 3 p.m. and Mass of the Passion of the Lord at 7 p.m.
  • Easter Vigil on April 3, 8:30 p.m.
  • Easter Sunday, April 4, Masses at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. in Spanish. There is no 5:30 p.m. service.
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