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Tampa Bay religious organizations grapple with reopening for public worship

Whenever they return to public worship, believers will be greeted with an environment focused on protecting their health as much as nourishing their spirit.
As the country reopens, faith groups are taking different routes to a return to public worship. Here, at Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, the Rev. Manuel L. Sykes is shown preaching from a makeshift stage on the church's property.
As the country reopens, faith groups are taking different routes to a return to public worship. Here, at Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, the Rev. Manuel L. Sykes is shown preaching from a makeshift stage on the church's property. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Chris Zuppa ]
Published May 28, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Gene Hammond spent part of Tuesday helping to rope off every other pew at Pasadena Presbyterian Church to ensure proper social distancing when the small congregation returns for in-person worship on June 7.

“We are recommending that people wear masks,” said Hammond, a church elder. The St. Petersburg congregation has hired a commercial company to disinfect its facility and monitor ongoing cleaning. “And we have rearranged the office, so we can protect our older volunteers. Our congregation is older, and our volunteers are older.”

Like many other Tampa Bay congregations, Pasadena Presbyterian is fastidious as it ventures back to communal worship amid continued concern and uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic. For those with set dates to reopen and others still deciding, certain changes seem guaranteed. Those adhering to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control will ban hugs and handshakes, suggest masks, do away with prayer books and hymnals, emphasize sanitizing and enforce social distancing.

Such protocols have greeted Tampa Bay Catholics since they began returning for daily Mass on May 11. This weekend, most parishes will resume Sunday Masses. The Rev. Alex Padilla, parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, and cathedral rector the Rev. Arthur Proulx will say five weekend Masses marking the important feast of Pentecost.

Related: Tampa Bay congregations mull reopening options

“We’re not too concerned about having too many people," Padilla said. "We have heard from multiple parishioners and some incredibly faithful parishioners that they will not be coming for the time being.” Masses will continue to be live-streamed and broadcast on the radio for those who cannot attend. “We want them to know they are not forgotten.”

Father Alex Padilla, Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, St. Petersburg, sets up a device to record and live stream a daily mass, on March 20 at the Our Lady's Chapel next to the cathedral.
Father Alex Padilla, Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, St. Petersburg, sets up a device to record and live stream a daily mass, on March 20 at the Our Lady's Chapel next to the cathedral. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

The coronavirus pandemic did not halt communal worship for everyone. At Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, singing and praying continued in its large parking lot across from a Publix supermarket.

The congregation is now preparing to worship indoors, starting with Bible study next Wednesday evening.

“That’s the plan, to do things gradually. We are waiting for the thermometers to come in," the Rev. Manuel Sykes said. "We removed enough pews and set up areas for families. We will have hand-sanitizing stations and masks.”

Not everyone is ready to abandon the safety of virtual worship. The National Council of Churches USA has urged congregations “to exercise extreme caution” when deciding when to reopen their doors.

The Rev. Alex Shanks of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church in Lakeland said in an online column that the church should set an example of safety for others.

"This is not a time to focus primarily on what we may be sacrificing by not gathering, but how we are serving and loving all our neighbors by not gathering too soon,” he added.

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Earlier this month, Tampa Bay Jewish religious leaders strongly recommended against resuming in-person communal worship and programs through the end of the summer. This week, Rabbi David Weizman of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater said that recommendation is unlikely to change for the summer, although leaders continue to assess their options.

Rabbi David Weizman of Congregation Beth Shalom, Clearwater
Rabbi David Weizman of Congregation Beth Shalom, Clearwater [ Rabbi David Weizman ]

That was reiterated in a letter to Congregation Beth Shalom’s members on Tuesday.

“It’s the same exact message, that regardless of what the authorities are permitting us to do, we are not abandoning the advice of our physicians and the scientific community that are mostly members of our synagogues,” Weizman said.

A synagogue task force is discussing what reopening would look like, he said, adding it might require expanding the worship space, as is done for the crowded High Holy Days services, to allow for social distancing. There’s much to consider, he said, mentioning reports that singing has the potential to spread the coronavirus.

“Singing is paramount in communal prayer. There are so many unknowns," Weizman said. “We know that people want to come back, and we’re constantly talking about it and weighing both sides.”

For Padilla, it’s been “fantastic” to resume public Masses. “That first day, it was so special to have people back ... to be able to pray together in person,” he said, cautioning that things are “not quite back to normal.”

“Some of the first things they will notice is that there will be no holy water out,” Padilla said. “About half of every pew, from left to right, is taped off with blue painter’s tape, and there is a sign saying don’t sit there. We’re also asking as many people as possible to wear masks."

Last week, Bishop Dabney Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida met with other Christian clergy to discuss reopening. He said the dates discussed were “everything from May 31 to the month of August."

As of May 31, congregations may expand in-person worship to 25 percent of their sanctuary’s capacity. They should make “very clear plans" to clean and disinfect before and after every function, Smith said, adding that hymnals and prayer books should be removed, collection plates should not be passed, and those considered vulnerable to the coronavirus should “be encouraged to remain at home.”

In-person worship never stopped at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area mosque, the largest in the area.

“The mosque is not just a place to worship. It is a place where people seek refuge, seek assistance, whether it is emotional, financial,” said administrator Mohamed Aqad. Believers have been praying in “separate and sanitized prayer chambers.”

At the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area's mosque, believers have worshiped in specially created sanitized prayer chambers separated by heavy plastic sheets to accommodate groups of 10, each person six feet apart.
At the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area's mosque, believers have worshiped in specially created sanitized prayer chambers separated by heavy plastic sheets to accommodate groups of 10, each person six feet apart. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Aqad is so confident of the mosque’s protocols that he is offering to help other faith groups prepare for reopening.

“We will help the churches. We will help the synagogues,” he said. "We believe that everybody needs to worship. This is the time to worship.”