MSDH releases updated guidance for worship services ahead of Easter

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Mississippi State Department of Health this week issued updated guidance on safer faith-based gatherings and worship services, but many churches in Oxford have already adapted in-person services according to local guidelines.

According to MSDH prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the vulnerable, the safest options continue to be virtual or outdoor services. Locally, churches in the LOU Community are still live streaming weekly services while also offering in-person worship.

Oxford-University United Methodist Church, for example, has shifted back to in-person services in recent months, but masks and a reservation are required to attend. Recent Masses at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford have conformed to the City of Oxford’s decision to follow the latest executive order from Gov. Tate Reeves, which removed all mask requirements. Instead, masks are encouraged. Social distancing policies are still in place at the church, including a sign-in sheet and reduced capacity.

Community Church Oxford has also returned to in-person worship at Lafayette Middle School. According to their social media page, the church requires that masks be worn until congregants reach their seats, at which point they are permitted to remove masks if desired. For Easter Sunday, the church will have a single service on the Lafayette High School football field at 10 a.m.

While many area churches are following different guidelines, MSDH recommends that everyone 16 and older be vaccinated against COVID-19, even if the individual has been previously infected with COVID-19.

For those meeting indoors, MSDH recommends the following guidelines:

1) Everyone 65 years of age or older should be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to attending in-person worship services (full vaccination is considered 2 weeks after the second dose of a two-dose vaccine, or 2 weeks after receiving a single-dose vaccine).

2) Anyone 16 or older with high-risk medical conditions should be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to attending in-person worship services (two weeks after completing vaccination).

3) Indoor safety guidance:

All congregants should wear a face mask at all times during in-person services.
All congregants should maintain six feet of separation from persons outside of their household. Household members may sit together.
Congregants should not gather in close groups while entering or exiting the building.
Congregants should use hand sanitizer prior to or upon entry of the building.
Singing is a high-risk activity that can quickly spread viral particles. It is preferable to not have choirs; however, if choirs are performing, they should be small in number, masked, and separated by six feet.
Those in classroom settings such as Sunday school or study groups should maintain six feet of separation and wear a mask at all times.
As appropriate, alternatives to shared cups for communion should be pursued.
The use of hymn books or prayer books is acceptable so long as congregants practice proper hand hygiene upon entering.
4) Additional procedures to protect congregants are encouraged based on local congregation leadership decisions.

Fr. Joe Tonos, minister at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, cautioned that this messaging from MSDH is not a signal to return to ‘normal’; instead, it is the state health authority’s way of reminding Mississippians that the threat of COVID-19 is very much still present. 

“What’s normal about vaccinations being a pre-requisite for entry into a church? Never before has this been the case,” Tonos said. “There is a delusion that we are over the virus. If anything, the Easter message is that Jesus conquered death but has asked us to ‘stay sober and alert’ for the devil, for the threat is always there.”

Additional information on COVID-19 vaccines and appointments is available at covidvaccine.umc.edu.