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Tampa Bay congregations mull reopening options

The governor’s lifting of his stay-at-home order doesn’t ease health and safety concerns about communal worship.

ST. PETERSBURG — Caution remains the watchword among Tampa Bay religious leaders grappling with how and when to resume communal worship.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ announcement Wednesday of the imminent lifting of stay-at-home orders might not be enough to accelerate the reopening of local places of worship.

The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church had asked its congregations not to hold public services before May 15 and doesn’t anticipate changing its guidance, “since gatherings over 10 persons are still discouraged,” the Rev. Alex Shanks said.

“A majority of our members are in at-risk populations, and we intend to take extra care as we encourage people to stay safe and faithful to God’s call to love our neighbors,” said Shanks, assistant to Bishop Ken Carter, head of the Florida Conference based in Lakeland.

But Park Street Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, which has been offering online services, may soon reopen with safeguards.

“We’re leaning on not being open this weekend, but the following weekend offer a couple of services with social distancing,” Pastor Dan Jeffers said. “We run about 200. We will probably have about half that will come. We’re going to make sure that the older folks know that it’s fine to stay home. We don’t want to put any pressure on them. We still do the online, so they will have an option.”

The church will be thoroughly cleaned and not offer a nursery, small group sessions or its traditional coffee and doughnuts, Jeffers said.

Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which spans five Tampa Bay counties and includes almost half a million members, is considering a phased reopening that could begin in a few weeks.

Bishop Gregory L. Parkes, head of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

“Obviously, the thing that is most important is safety. Safety for the faithful, but also for our priests and ministers,” he said Wednesday, before DeSantis’ announcement. “I think reopening for us, as the Catholic Church, will probably be on a gradual basis ... There is some possibility that we might begin with daily Mass only.”

Related: Diocese of St. Petersburg cancels all public Mass celebrations in Tampa Bay

That would mean Mass on Monday through Saturday, with Sunday services continuing to be live-streamed. Daily Masses draw smaller crowds, the bishop said.

Parkes, who suspended public Masses on March 18, added that he would continue to offer dispensation to the obligation to attend Sunday Mass “for those who are elderly and to anyone who is fearful to come back to a large gathering.”

Listening to the governor "affirmed his desire to begin public worship in the next few weeks,” diocesan spokeswoman Teresa Peterson said later.

In his announcement, DeSantis encouraged those in vulnerable populations to avoid crowded places. He also promoted the continuation of social distancing.

Social distancing could be a problem in small churches, said Bishop Pedro M. Suarez of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“How many people can get in, keeping 6 feet on the right, the left, front and back. And they all have to wear face masks,” he said. “I don’t even agree with anyone giving communion right now.”

Bishop Pedro M. Suárez of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ Bishop Pedro Suarez ]

Suarez said he has advised his congregations to listen to health authorities, but also to check with their insurance carriers to determine their liability, should anyone get ill.

Related: With coronavirus, religious groups in Tampa Bay use technology to cope

“Basically, this is going to go week by week,” he said. "I don’t think we are going to be able to open in May. Maybe June.”

The pandemic did more than halt public worship for Rabbi Alter Korf. It claimed the lives of his father, Rabbi Gedale Korf, and brother, Rabbi Yaakov Aharon Korf, in New York. For now, Korf and his wife, Chaya, are keeping the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg closed.

Rabbi Alter Korf of the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg.

“The truth is, while we very much look forward to finally reopening, we are going to remain open virtually for a while longer for the safety of everybody in our community,” Korf said.

Idlewild Baptist Church, with 15,000 members and campuses in Tampa and in Lutz, will begin next week to plan its reopening, said Pastor Brian McDougall. The church will use answers from a survey sent to members that asked whether they will wear a mask, shake hands and how they feel about seating capacity in church facilities.

A taskforce called Together Again, and made up of about 20 members, has been formed.

“The data from the survey and input from the taskforce will be key ingredients for the church’s reopening plan,” said McDougall, the church’s executive pastor. “We respect our governor and the guidance that he gives will help inform our decision. We will do everything we can to keep our people safe.”

Todd C. Bangerter is president of the Florida St. Petersburg Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The stake includes all of Pinellas County.

“The Church and its members are committed to being good citizens and good neighbors,” he said in a prepared statement. In response to the coronavirus, its leadership directed that all public gatherings of Church members be “temporarily suspended worldwide until further notice,” Bangerter said. “At this point, we do not anticipate any change based on Gov. DeSantis’ plan, due to social distancing and the size of our congregations,” he said.

Others are still deliberating the next move. Bishop Dabney Smith, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, which is spread across seven counties, sent a checklist to church leaders “to begin the conversation of how to return to regular services," spokesman Garland Pollard said.

Bishop Dabney T. Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida [ Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida ]

Clergy in the diocese met Thursday afternoon by teleconference to discuss the way forward, Pollard said.

Pastor Ryan Rouse of Spring Hill Baptist Church will meet with his staff and deacons to talk about a reopening strategy. He’s leaning toward offering several services to allow for easier social distancing for the congregation of about 500.

“They are welcome to our masks. We have hand-sanitizer stations. We put them in last year. We’ll keep those in place. And then we are not going to have offering plates. We are going to have collection boxes," said Rouse, the congregation’s senior pastor. "Whenever we set a date for a reopening, we’re going to have a lot of measures in place. We want people to feel comfortable when they come back.”

Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg [ Rabbi Philip Weintraub ]

At Congregational B’nai Israel, Rabbi Philip Weintraub said synagogue leaders are at the beginning of their discussions about reopening.

“We want to take care of their spiritual and emotional health, and that’s why we have been doing things we haven’t done before, streaming our services and bringing classes and gatherings online,” he said. “I would love to have services tomorrow. However, I don’t want to do that before it’s safe. This will be a conversation, and it will happen slowly.”