Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday issued state guidelines for church leaders on how best to begin having in-person worship services in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“These guidelines are designed to allow the churches to reopen safely,” Reeves said. “Included in these are guidelines regarding deep cleaning to ensure safety, holding services for vulnerable populations separate from the rest of the congregation, limiting attendance and putting proper spacing between family units in the pews.”

Consulting with Dr. Thomas Dobbs and state health officials, Reeves developed guidelines for worship leaders and their congregations to join together to practice their faiths while continuing to help protect public health and flatten the curve.

Reeves pointed out state officials never shut down public worship, but said religious leaders have been eager to receive good medical advice on how and when to gather again. 

Other features in the new guidelines include suspension of the traditional passing of the offering plate, closing coffee stations and forgoing performances from the whole choir in favor of ensembles or individuals. See the full guidelines at onlinemadison.com/ftp/worship.pdf.

Officials are recommending a start date of June 1, at the earliest, to begin meeting in person. The governor, a United Methodist, said that personally he will continue to worship on Sunday mornings with his family at the Governor’s Mansion for the “foreseeable future.”

“We have decided that our family will continue to worship from home,” Reeves said, after noting that these were just guidelines, not mandated rules. “I believe in my heart that our church is not a building. We can honor our Lord and still keep our neighbors safe.”

Several metro church leaders had positive reactions to the governor’s guidelines.

Derrick Cowan, Executive Pastor at First Ridgeland Baptist Church, said Wednesday he was planning to give in-person sermons to parishioners starting June 7.

“We are encouraging everyone to come to the Worship Center as a family, as there will be no preschool or Kids Summit,” Cowan said, alluding to the child-care services the church normally offers. “We’re taking every precaution to keep you safe, as we gradually resume returning to campus.”

Cowan added that masks are not required, but encouraged, and that the church would provide hand sanitizer stations and masks to any worshiper who needs it. He’s asking church members who are experiencing symptoms to continue to worship from home.

Several churches in the area have announced similar plans.

Michael Estes, pastor at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Madison, said his congregation would meet in person for the first time on June 7 as well.

“Personally, I can’t wait to let people back into our building,” Estes said. “I don’t want to deliver any more sermons to a camera. But our congregation has been very supportive during this difficult time, and we want to offer them in-person services as long as it’s safe to do so.”

Ridgecrest, Estes added, is utilizing many of the guidelines laid out in the governor’s suggestion, such as deep-cleaning, limiting attendance to half capacity and requiring church employees to wear protectives masks, among others.

Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison previously announced it was extending it’s “online-only” gatherings through May 31, but has not announced when its first in-person service will be held.

Pastor Robert Lane at First Presbyterian Church Madison said he had a meeting with church leadership on Sunday afternoon. He said they expect to hold services on May 31. He said it will “not be like it was before” but that he and church leaders hoped to provide a welcoming and safe environment.

He said they have taken such measures as removing the hymn books and Bibles form the pews. Chairs will be spaced throughout the sanctuary to ensure social distancing. Churchgoers will be encouraged to wear masks and communal singing will be kept to a minimum. The nursery, Sunday school, and pre-service coffee and doughnuts will not be offered. Lane said that they will not pass around an offering plate but will have plates set up for people to drop their offering in on their way in or out.

“We are Presbyterians, which means that we are Calvinist and believe that everything happens in God’s intended time," he said. "But I told my elders and deacons that that doesn’t mean I can take a gun and shoot someone and say it must have been his time as my defense. We have people in our congregation who think this all blown out of proportion and some who are scared to come back, and we want to make sure we are offering as safe an environment for those who do want to come back.”

Lane also praised the Governor’s approach to religious services.
“I appreciate the governor’s attitude," Lane said. "He acknowledged that he could not force us to close our doors, but instead asked for our cooperation."

Representatives from several United Methodist Churches contact by the Journal said they were waiting to announce plans until approval was handed down from church’s Council of Bishops.

The Catholic Diocese in Jackson had given directives to its churches and they are now formulating plans to resume service next weekend for Pentecost.

Madison County has reported 80 new cases in the past week, which marks a 16 percent increase since last week and brings the total number of cases in the county to 573. Three Madison countians have died as a result of the virus in the last week, including one resident of a long-term care facility. Data from the Mississippi State Department of Health show 21 new COVID-19 cases among the residents and staff at Madison nursing homes in the past week. That total now stands at 89 cases.

As of Wednesday, the total death toll here was 18.

Madison ranks third among all counties for total cases, behind Hinds (800) and Lauderdale (616) and just ahead of Scott County (567). Based on the latest census data and infection numbers from the state, one in every 184 Madison County residents has tested positive for the virus.

Among the 573 cases in the county, 297 were African Americans and 142 were white, with the rest listed as “other” or “unknown.”

As of last week, tests are being made available to anyone who is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms — including headaches, fever, cough, shortness of breath or sore throat — or anyone who reasonably believes they might have come in contact with it.

A coronavirus hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at (877) 978-6453.

The City of Canton remains under a nighttime curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.