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Reduced numbers in the congregation worship the Sunday morning mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Baton Rouge.

Praise the Lord and pass the hand gel. 

With a possible end date for the governor's stay-at-home order less than two weeks away, area churches are already trying to determine how they'll conduct worship services if they're allowed to reopen their sanctuaries to the public.

No plans are final, and Gov. John Bel Edwards himself isn't sure he will ease restrictions May 15. He has said the state's transition into the first phase of a reopened economy will largely depend on consecutive downward trends in Louisiana's day-to-day coronavirus death and hospitalizations numbers.

But so far, it looks like large domination churches will likely hold multiple services and implement social distancing rules to limit person-to-person contact.

"Loving thy neighbor will look quite different," said Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, executive director of the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge. "These new guidelines are going to be with us for a while. We have these next couple of weeks to think through everything."

On Tuesday, the Interfaith Federation hosted a webinar with city-parish leaders, bringing together more than 100 leaders from the region's diverse religious denominations. Much of the conversation concerned best practices to follow during the first phase of reopenings. 

Those guidelines include most of the better personal hygiene protocols, social distancing recommendations and personal protection mandates that state leaders have already announced for businesses looking to expand or restart operations at mid-May. 

"Every house of worship will need some kind of monitoring system, someone who takes responsibility to make sure surfaces are clean, people are wearing masks, etc.," Bade said. 

The Diocese of Baton Rouge hasn't yet determined when public Masses will resume.

"When our churches do reopen to congregational worship, there are several things that we can predict will be required," spokesman Dan Borne said.

Among them, Borne said, is requiring at least 6 feet in all directions between people in pews, which might involve folks sitting in every other pew. Parishioners and ministers will be required to wear masks, and occupancy during Masses will get limited to no more than 25% of the church's seating capacity, the same mandate commercial businesses must follow with first-phase guidelines set by the federal government and state.

Borne said reopening churches amid a public health crisis will present a new set of challenges the diocese never really had to consider or work around before. Typically, services are canceled temporarily for winter weather, hurricanes or other natural disasters.

"We’ve got to 'go public,' celebrating Mass with the best quality and care possible, and protect the public health at the same time," he said. "This means working on questions like how to accommodate overflow numbers of people when the church building reaches its modified seating capacity, how to distribute Holy Communion in the safest as well as most reverent manner, and how to assure that worship spaces are cleaned between each Mass."

Catholic religious leaders also have church rules to consider. Normally, Canon 905 of the Code of Canon Law limits the number of Masses a priest can preside over — ordinarily two on weekdays and three on Sunday. Out of pastoral necessity in various times and places, Borne said occasional exceptions have been made in accord with other sections of the law.

"Thanks to technology and some very innovative thinking on the parts of our priests and parishioners, many of our parishes have made their liturgical celebrations available on the internet and on a variety of other digital platforms," he said. "So a lot of our planning is centered around how to implement practices that will assure [state] requirements are satisfied."

First Presbyterian of Baton Rouge, with more than 1,600 congregants, tentatively intends to reopen its church sanctuary downtown on May 17 with two services — 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.

It will limit seating to 25% of the church's seating capacity, or about 200 members, according to the church's Ministry Executive Barry Phillips.

"We’ve already begun asking those in our congregation who plan on coming to ‘sign up’ through our webpage member’s portal. Once we have 200 ‘registered’, registration will be closed," Phillips said. "Social distancing will be challenging but with pre-registration, we know the size of the families and groups and/or individuals who will be coming and will be able to accomplish at least some strategic seat assignments to accomplish healthy distances."

Phillips said the church intends to use greeters to assist members with seating as they arrive and the church's sanctuary will be thoroughly cleaned between services.

"We will have hand sanitizer upon arrival and departure," he added. "We’ve not answered the question about masks but that may well be a requirement of the governor and, if so, we will participate."

First Presbyterian church leaders are also trying to sort out distribution of church bulletins and orders of worship and the method in which communion will occur. But he said its highly unlikely the church will hold Sunday School, offer its nursery service or maintain any fellowship activities that require members to come in close contact with another for the time being.

"We are happily a multi-generational church ... we have many 'at-risk' individuals who may make the decision not to come to worship," Phillips said. "There are, of course, others who have underlying conditions that may cause them to stay home as well."

"We will not know until well into May what worship will look like if we actually are able to gather together," he said.

One area church has continued to meet since Edwards limited crowd sizes. Its pastor has been charged with six counts of violating a governor's order, and he also faces an aggravated assault charge after allegedly threatening a protester with a church bus.


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com