A Small Step Forward: Updated COVID-19 Guidelines Effective Thursday, April 22, 2021
For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Isaiah 55:12
 
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
 
There’s a great day coming, when we shall all be free from the limitations, restrictions and disappointments of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our collective hope for 2021 has been that we would return to something closer to normal in our lives and in our churches.
 
Thanks be to God, we are…almost…but not quite…there.
 
As the pandemic numbers we watch so closely move steadily in the right direction and vaccines become widely available, COVID-19 is loosening its grip on us, and we can begin loosening some of the diocesan Guidelines that have been in place for more than a year.
 
However, we must temper our excitement and utter relief that the light at the end of this long tunnel grows nearer, balancing our eagerness with prudence and a vigilant awareness that we are not there yet. Questions about how to reopen our churches more fully are complex and uncertain, similar to the ones we faced while developing our initial Guidelines, and many precautions must still remain in place.
 
Effective immediately, the Diocesan Guidelines for Phased Reopening have been updated to reflect the adjusted protocols, referred to as Phase 2(c): Lifting Restrictions on Congregational Life. Below you can read a summary of the revisions to the Diocesan Guidelines, reflecting the changing landscape of the pandemic. They also consider the latest information from the CDC as well as perspectives offered by Episcopalian health and medical professionals within the Diocese.
 
Even as we will be delighted with these changes, we will also be disappointed at restrictions that must remain in place. As before, your church’s clergy and lay leadership are entrusted with the great responsibility of determining whether or not these lifted restrictions are appropriate for your congregation at this time, or later. Church leadership should continue to pay attention to local guidance, public health officials, and COVID-19 statistics for the entire county, rather than just the local church population. Local data can be found at this link.
 
While analyzing a congregation’s local guidelines, consider the following:
  • Positivity rates
  • Cases per 100,000 people
  • Hospitalization rates
  • ICU occupancy
  • County and state vaccination percentages of adults 16+

I truly believe that our 87 churches have played a significant part in the battle against COVID-19. Nobody likes the masks, social distancing, and severe limitations on worship and ministries, yet these sacrificial acts of love have served our communities well. And so, a thousand thank-yous for all you have done to stick together, extend grace and patience, and keep following Jesus through so many challenges.
 
Please read the Revised Guidelines carefully. Vestries and Bishop’s Committees should study them alongside your local protocols. Your questions are always welcome. Archdeacon Mike Besson remains the primary point of contact, though all diocesan staff are available to support your church.
 
We are all tired of all of this, but we are so much closer to arriving on the other side. How much better for all of us - and how much more is God glorified - when we continue to walk together, one in Christ, saying in all things, “Nevertheless, know this: the Kingdom of God has come near.”
                                                                                                           
Love in Christ,                                                                                   
 
David M. Reed
Bishop of West Texas
Phase 2(c): Lifting Restrictions on Congregational Life
As you will recall, the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas announced on March 3, 2021, following Governor Greg Abbott’s new orders to rescind most COVID-19 restrictions in Texas, that we would continue to uphold diocesan guidelines for Churches, Schools, and Camps. As of today, April 22, 23% of the Texas State population is fully vaccinated and around 45% of people over sixteen years old have received at least one dose of the vaccine. This is encouraging news, especially as the B.1.1.7 variant is circulating quickly in the United States.
 
From the beginning of the pandemic, we have tried to follow Jesus as we took each “next right step.” We have sought in word and deed, and in the Guidelines, to be cautious, but not fearful; to acknowledge anxiety, but not surrender to it; and to make decisions grounded in hope rather than wishful thinking. We have also asked God’s grace to give us wisdom, courage, and humility - humility so that we might be open to the knowledge and guidance of medical and scientific professionals.
           
Every requirement, recommendation, and explanation contained in the Diocesan Guidelines can be summed up in Jesus’ commands that we love one another as he loves us and that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. As local churches implement the Phase 2(c) revisions, some may feel it is too soon to make changes and others may feel the changes are not enough. Love your neighbor, anyway; love one another like Jesus loves you.
 
Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guideline and in consultation with local medical professionals, the diocesan office presents revised Diocesan Guidelines for Phased Reopening of Churches: Phase 2(c): Lifting Restrictions on Congregational Life.
 
Effective immediately under Phase 2(c) the following practices are no longer required, and local leadership may discontinue them at their discretion:
  • Cleaning surfaces between services is no longer required, but encouraged. This should permit use of altar rail, when six feet social distancing can be maintained between households, as well as prayer books, hymnals, etc. (CDC Science Brief, April 5, 2021)
  • Masks are optional for outdoor gatherings, when six feet social distance can be maintained between households.
  • Masks are optional for Church Staff meetings, or any closed in-person meeting, where every invited individual is fully vaccinated and in-person meeting attendance does not exceed 12 people. (CDC "When You've Been Fully Vaccinated," April 2, 2021). This option does not include any in-person gathering that is open to the public. All church services, fellowship offerings, or faith education classes / Bible studies are considered open to the public, regardless of average Sunday attendance or date since receiving a newcomer.
  • Fully vaccinated Clergy, Staff, and Volunteers are no longer required to quarantine after an exposure to the virus. (CDC "When You've Been Fully Vaccinated," April 2, 2021)
  • Clergy and Lay Eucharistic Visitors may bring communion to homebound/hospitalized people adhering to both the facility’s COVID-19 guidelines and Diocesan Guidelines for distributing communion.
  • Processions are allowed, maintaining six-feet between individuals. Choral singing in procession is still discouraged.
  • Clergy may greet worshippers after church, preferably outside. Dismissing people pew by pew is no longer needed; care should be taken to avoid crowded indoor lines and to maintain six-feet between households.

Until further notice, the following protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 remain in place:
  • Masks are required indoors at public gatherings, even if participants are fully vaccinated. All church services, fellowship offerings, or faith education classes / Bible studies are considered open to the public, regardless of average Sunday attendance or date since receiving a newcomer.
  • Clergy are not required to wear masks or gloves during the Eucharistic prayer, preaching, and reading. Lay worship leaders are not required to wear masks while speaking or reading to the congregation, when six feet social distancing can be maintained.
  • Maintain six feet distance between members of different households, whether inside or outside, at all public gatherings and closed, in-person meetings. As of March 19, 2021, the CDC has issued guidance that only K-12 schools may maintain 3 feet distances between students. The CDC has not changed their guidance for adults.
  • Food and refreshments are only permitted outside, when six feet social distancing can be maintained between households.
  • Encourage hand washing and sanitation.
  • Communion will be distributed in one kind only.
  • Nurseries and childcare are permitted; see Guidelines for recommendations.
  • In-person education and Christian formation classes for all ages are permitted, while adhering to Diocesan Guidelines for in-person gatherings.
 
As some diocesan restrictions relax, be aware that local, state, and federal conditions could change at any time, requiring a return to stricter guidelines or allowing for continued revisions. The diocesan staff will review our protocols every two to three weeks for the foreseeable future with this in mind. Bishop’s Committees, Vestries, Clergy, and other congregational leaders should establish a regular review of local church guidelines and maintain steady communication with congregation members about any adjustments.