After weeks of offering drive-thru, drive-in and virtual services, local churches are beginning to ease back into in-person services after Alabama’s stay-at-home order expired earlier this week.

Daily Mass resumed at St. Columba Catholic Church, and Dothan’s Harvest Church hosted its first youth group meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic led the state to restrict gatherings. Other churches plan to resume in-person services Sunday, while some are waiting another week or two.

No matter when they start, local church leaders said services will be different for the time being, because even though congregations can finally come together, they still have to keep their distance.

“I really truly think that our safety is the biggest thing that we have to look at,” said the Rev. Patrick Gallagher of St. Columba Catholic Church.

Mass is being held in St. Columba’s smaller chapel rather than the main sanctuary. The church can seat about 116 worshipers compared to the 400 to 500 members who usually attend Mass.

Gallagher said he thinks the desire to attend church is mixed with anxiety over all the unknowns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“They want to be there,” he said. “But there’s a great fear.”

Fulfilling requirements

Churches are addressing social distancing requirements by holding more than one service and setting up seating arrangements that will keep people 6 feet apart. While Gov. Kay Ivey lifted the number restriction on gatherings, social distancing requirements are still in place.

Some churches are asking members to make reservations or call if they plan to attend. In some cases, ushers will guide worshippers on where to sit and most churches plan to skip pews to keep members spread out.

Between services, sanctuaries will be cleaned and sanitized. Bibles and hymnals have been removed from the pews, and some churches are encouraging members to wear masks or to stay home if they are sick or at higher risk. Doors may be propped open and drinking fountains may be off-limits. The traditional offering plate also likely won’t be passed around during worship services.

At Harvest Church, families are being encouraged to bring headphones for children to connect on tablets or smartphones and follow along with services, said the church’s pastor, Ralph Sigler. The church plans to have services at 8:45 and 10:45 a.m., with members calling in to reserve seating.

Sigler said he doesn’t expect everybody to return immediately, but the church’s online services over the past few weeks have seen higher numbers than before the pandemic. With all the discouragement and depression brought on by the pandemic, Sigler said he believes people have turned to God as an anchor.

“In a time like this, all the things that people depend on have been shaken — the governments, the economies, people’s own finances, their work and businesses,” Sigler said. “You really, then, look at what cannot be shaken.”

Like Harvest, other churches plan to continue livestreaming services for those who cannot return to on-site worship. And some churches are not ready to get into Sunday school gatherings or evening services just yet.

Ridgecrest Baptist Church on Fortner Street in Dothan has created seating charts for family groups of up to four people to sit together during services at 8 and 11 a.m., with reservations made by calling the church or visiting its website. The church’s worship center, which normally seats around 1,000 people, will be able to seat around 400 under the plan. Ridgecrest also plans to broadcast the service in the fellowship hall.

Ridgecrest will reopen its fitness center’s weight room and walking track on Monday at 5 a.m. with social distancing and sanitation guidelines. Other areas of the fitness center — the game area, locker and shower areas, and the racquetball court — will remain closed.

First Baptist Church of Dothan will not resume services until May 24, the church’s pastor, Taylor Rutland, said. It will have services at 9 and 11 a.m. and will have guidelines for members to enter and exit the building.

The church will not have child care, but the chapel will be set up for families with activities available for young children while their parents watch the service broadcast on a screen. Small group gatherings will continue virtually, Rutland said. Sunday school classes will not be held yet.

“We just don’t feel we have the space to bring those people back in a way that we can still abide by social distancing guidelines,” Rutland said. “In the sanctuary, we can definitely space out no problem — that place holds a thousand people. … Most of our classrooms are just not set up to hold 25 people in a way that we could space them all out.”

Rutland said church leaders have spent weeks hashing out the details of how to return to in-person services.

“We’re encouraging anybody who is not feeling well or has a fever or is still fearful about coming to stay home,” Rutland said.

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