empty choir

While some churches have resumed services, many are asking their congregations not to sing in fear of spreading the coronavirus.

Is singing in church bad for your health?

It could be, and some churches aren't ready to take that chance.

As houses of worship begin to reopen for services, concerns that singing may contribute to spreading the coronavirus have some area pastors and music ministers altering plans for how music will be a part of worship.

In some cases, no singing means no in-person services for now.

That's true at Mount Zion First Baptist Church where the pastor, the Rev. Rene Brown, said singing is integral to worship.

“I can’t foresee them being quiet,” Brown said. “I can’t see that happening. When they come back in, they’re going to be ready to worship. They’re going to be ready to praise, and you’re not going to be able to stop that. That’s one of the main reasons we’re not coming back … prematurely.”

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The coronavirus is believed to spread primarily when a person breathes in the respiratory droplets of an infected person after they cough or sneeze, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency recommends people stay at least 6 feet apart to help prevent the spread.

Projecting your voice, like you do when singing, could cause droplets to travel farther than 6 feet.

“Many experts around the world are saying that singing, even with a mask, can spread the virus well beyond what can be spread via talking,” said Blake Bruchhaus, music minister at St. George Catholic Church. “The airflow and droplet spread from singing has been equated to that of coughing. As you may know, only special grade masks prevent droplets spread from coughing.”

The CDC reported that following a 2½-hour choir practice on March 10 in Skagit County, Washington, 52 of the 61 choir members were infected with COVID-19. Three choir members were hospitalized, and two died. "Transmission was likely facilitated by close proximity (within 6 feet) during practice and augmented by the act of singing," the CDC reported.

Local church leaders said they don’t want to eliminate music entirely from the worship experience, and they’re using a variety of ways to make it safer.

At St. George, which resumed Sunday worship on May 17, cantor Angela Sneed encouraged the congregation not to sing and explained that unfamiliar songs had been chosen to discourage participation. Instead, she asked worshipers to listen and pray the words she sang. The church's choirs won't be singing for the time being.

There will be congregational singing when The Chapel, a nondenominational church, resumes services on June 7 at its Siegen Lane campus because it has multiple rooms in which congregants can participate, said the Rev. Kevin McKee, its pastor.

“It’s a critical part of our service, and it will have its same level of importance in our service,” he said.

Personal protection equipment will be made available, McKee said, and one section will be restricted to only those wearing masks. The praise band will observe social distancing on the platform, and the church will put song lyrics on a projection screen, so there are no hymnals or song sheets that can be touched and possibly spread the virus.

First Baptist Church of Baton Rouge is considering having the choir sing from the balcony with members spaced several feet apart whenever it resumes in-person worship, said Jason Haynes, minister of music. First Baptist may try to create distancing between families to prevent the disease from being passed along.

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Broadmoor United Methodist Church will use smaller ensembles to lead music so they can be properly spaced, said David Shaler, music director. And, he said, the congregation will be asked to listen to the words rather than join in.

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“But I don't think we plan to publicly flog those who happen to join in on a hymn gently and with a mask over their mouth,” Shaler said. “I believe that people who have experienced the saving grace of God in their lives will always have a song in their soul, if not on their lips. I'm reminded of this refrain from an old hymn: ‘No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?’ ”

Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.