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Worship in the time of the coronavirus

Steps being taken to minimize exposure


“People are edgy,” the Rev. Shawn Williams, the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Glen Cove, said of his congregants’ reactions to the coronavirus. There was a drop in attendance at last Sunday’s Mass, Williams said, which included two people who have cancer, which saddened him. “It’s hard for people fighting an illness not to go to church,” he said. “That’s where they see their proxy family. If they have to isolate, they’re losing two major sources of support.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults, as well as those with compromised im-mune systems and chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, are at higher risk from the virus. The CDC recommends that people over 60 steer clear of crowds, avoid cruises and non-essential air travel, and stay home if there are cases of coronavirus in their community.

A few weeks ago, Williams received instructions on minimizing exposure at Mass from Lawrence C. Provenzano, the Episcopal bishop of Long Island. Williams and other Episcopal priests were told to encourage worshipers to stay in their pews during the sign of peace, and not to shake hands. Additionally, the chalice would no longer be offered to congregants. Williams said he understands the precautions are necessary, but he is disheartened.

“The ritual in worship is deeply ingrained,” he said. “For a lot of people, these changes were the first real concrete manifestation of what we would have to do during the virus. It was the moment where it was like, ‘This isn’t something I only see on television. This is something that’s affecting my life.’”

The Rev. Mark Applewhite, interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Glen Cove, said there were more worshipers last Sunday, most likely because people want to be connected. “We’re at a time when people are discrediting science,” he said.

Jewish leaders are also mindful of the CDC’s suggested precautions, said Irwin Huberman, rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove. “We have rituals, like shaking each other’s hands when called to Torah,” he said. “Now we touch elbows. We don’t do anything that involves contact now.” When the synagogue, one of the largest congregations on the North Shore, celebrated Purim on Monday, congregants were given hand sanitizer and encouraged to use it when they entered.

Huberman said he has not seen attendance drop, but he is being extra attentive to older worshipers. A monthly class on the pioneers of Israel, which attracts many attendees who are 70 to 80, was scheduled for this week, but anticipating many absences, Huberman made arrangements for them to take part in a videoconference.

“We’ve had some emails from the children of our senior citizens saying they would appreciate it if their dad or mom didn’t come to synagogue,” Huberman said. “They asked if there is another way that I can include them. We are considering online services.”

The Rev. John Yenchko, pastor of Oyster Bay’s North Shore Community Church, a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, said there were fewer people at last Sunday’s service, but that may have been due to the change to daylight saving time.

Yenchko has made some changes to minimize worshipers’ exposure. Hand sanitizer is available and encouraged, especially before Communion. Bread is now handed to those who take part, rather than taken from a tray. And hugging and kissing are now discouraged. “I’m having hand-shaking withdrawal,” Yenchko said. “We’re a very affectionate church but are learning to greet each other without kissing.”

People from Asia and other countries are among the church’s members. Yenchko said he was not worried about them, as long as they have not traveled to those countries recently and are not exhibiting signs of the virus. “Our people are people of faith, and there’s no hysteria,” he said. “We trust in the Lord with all of our heart and are wise and cautious with the virus.”

There were a couple of members missing last Sunday at Hood AME Zion Church in Oyster Bay, said its pastor, the Rev. Linda Vanager — one of whom had flu-like symptoms. Vanager is taking precautions to keep worshipers healthy. The expression of fellowship has changed from a handshake or a hug to an elbow bump, she said. And she distributes communion wafers individually.

The congregation is small at Hood. Vanager said she would probably find out at the Wednesday Bible study whether people will be staying home. “I’m not sure if everyone who usually comes will,” she said. “To me it’s about common sense and faith. We don’t even know how the virus is being spread.”

She acknowledged that she had a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday, and was advised to stay home. She did skip a meeting, but said she would be at Bible study.

The Rev. Jeff Prey, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Oyster Bay, said the outbreak has not noticeably affected his church yet. He is following the same protocols he has in the past during flu season. Congregants once tore a piece of bread from a loaf and dipped it in grape juice, but the bread is now precut.

“No one seems worried right now,” Prey said. Hand sanitizers were placed around the church 10 years ago, which congregants seem to be using more, he said. And the church’s custodian focuses on cleaning handrails, doorknobs and the restroom. “Panic breeds panic,” Prey said. “But I’m aware we don’t know what we don’t know, so I’m cautious.”

Sometimes, he added, people ignore their symptoms when they have the flu. “If the coronavirus causes people to think more selflessly than when they have the flu, it could be a good thing,” Prey said. “People who decided to work through the flu ended up infecting others. Maybe with this virus, they’ll stay home.”

But First Presbyterian worshipers are not replacing handshakes with fist-bumping. “It’s more like a bow from Japanese culture that we’re doing instead,” Prey said.