More churches across Alaska are beginning to reopen under updated health guidelines released on May 8 as part of phase two of reopening the state. As of May 11, Alaska had just 53 active cases of COVID-19. The new guidelines allow for up to 50 people in religious services.
“It felt so good to assemble together with a pure conscience,” said Pastor Aaron Richert of Church at the North Pole where the community held two services on May 10. “We did everything that was recommended.”
According to state mandates, churches must provide hand sanitizer, facility cleaning and observe social distancing between individuals who are not part of the same household. The new mandate expands allowable assembly sizes from 20 to 50 people for in-person services.
Anchorage Baptist Temple, one of the largest churches in Anchorage, continues to hold parking lot services every Sunday at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Additionally the church has begun showing drive in movies with 200 or less cars in the church parking lot.
On the Kenai Peninsula, Kenai Bible Church is planning to open this coming Sunday, May 17, with two services.
“We will be doing services here at the church again,” Elder Vance Wonser enthusiastically announced via a Facebook video. He asked congregants to stay home if they feel sick or uncertain about gathering in public.
“Don’t feel like you have to be here,” Wonser advised.
Many other churches are continuing with online or live-streaming services for the time being. More, however, are expected to announce limited reopenings in the days ahead.
Alaska’s two Catholic bishops have taken different approaches. Juneau Bishop Andrew Bellisario, who also is temporarily overseeing the Anchorage Archdiocese, has continued his order that parishes remain closed to the public and that clergy provide online Masses only. On May 15 he will allow limited private prayers in the churches, and has tentative plans to reopen parishes on May 22.
Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski, however, is allowing local priests to determine on a parish-by-parish basis whether to open the churches for in-person liturgies. At the same time, he is providing three outdoor Masses in the Sacred Heart Cathedral parking lot on Sundays.
“After reviewing documents provided to the US Bishops from working groups (comprised of scientists, medical professionals, canon lawyers and liturgists) and personally consulting a virologist and a surgeon (both devout Catholics), I am issuing the following guidance for Mass,” Zielinski said in a May 8 letter to parishes. “I deeply respect your sacrifices, flexibility and patience during this challenging time.”
Churches across the country are starting to reopen as well.
Liberty Council, an ecumenical legal service that has defended religious freedom cases across the nation during the COVID-19 crisis, issued a video encouraging U.S. churches to safely reopen.
“The lockdowns have closed churches at a time of greatest need, and they must reopen to meet the burgeoning needs of the community,” said Liberty Council Founder Mat Staver. “Churches are now more essential than ever to bring comfort, hope, and help to the people they serve. Each church is different and each one must assess when and how best to reopen.”