When Lancaster County houses of worship welcomed back their members for in-person services, their policies regarding health and safety varied greatly.
Many followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and required all members to wear masks. Others strongly recommended them, like the Worship Center, which shared a message regarding the recommendation on its website in July. The Worship Center did not respond to requests for comment on its policy.
In a recording of a June 28 sermon, Doug Plank from Crossway Church of Lancaster in Millersville criticized Gov. Tom Wolf’s mask mandate and encouraged his congregation to ignore it. Crossway Church of Lancaster also did not respond to requests for comment.
LNP | LancasterOnline reached out to 10 local houses of worship regarding their mask policy, but only four responded. Those who did all had one thing in common: masks are strictly required for attendees at their services.
Following is a sampling of responses from faith communities in Lancaster County.
Mukaram Syed, a board of trustees member of the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster, 275 Hess Blvd., distributed masks to refugee families at a drive-thru giveaway in April and May.
Through the giveaways, which were meant to only hand out groceries, Syed learned that some families didn’t have masks, or were using fabric as makeshift masks.
So before the center’s partial reopening in July, the center distributed masks. Syed says telling people to bring a mask is easy, but if they don’t have one, then the center must act.
“This is the core value of the faith: to be a mercy, a blessing to yourself, to your family, to your neighbors, so you cannot have this pandemic or any kind of thing cannot spread,” Syed said. “So we have to put a cap on it.”
The board and security council met virtually during the reopening planning process and decided to require everyone to wear masks. Syed said some members of the board have been working with local hospitals, so daily updates about the number of people in the ER and what’s happening in neighboring counties informed their decision.
Syed also keeps the congregation up to date about CDC health guidelines and how they may affect activities at the center — for instance, if attendees should shake hands or use certain prayer rugs.
“In fact, as we get more information, more knowledge about this virus, we pass that on and we tell them,” Syed said.
Don Feldman, president of the Congregation Degel Israel, 1120 Columbia Ave., has focused on consistent communication with the members of his synagogue.
Feldman has advised older members by phone to not attend events. Although the synagogue requires everyone to wear a mask, Feldman said older members should stay home.
“Wearing masks is not foolproof, so basically we’ve taken the position that people at risk or at higher risk shouldn’t come to any gatherings,” Feldman said.
Congregation Degel Israel first reopened in late May after being closed in March.
Those first few weeks were strange, Feldman said.
“I told a friend of mine, ‘It felt like you were visiting a leper colony,’ because you had all these people who were socially distanced wearing masks,” Feldman said.
Not long after reopening, the synagogue closed again out of general precaution. Once Lancaster County went from the yellow to green phase in late June, the synagogue reopened for a second time.
Wearing masks has changed how members talk and interact, but the congregation sees its purpose, Feldman said.
“It appears to everybody at our synagogue that there’s a benefit to wearing masks, that it’s not any sort of ironclad protection but it could very well reduce the chances of infection so we intend to require that for the foreseeable future,” Feldman said.
Eric Hine, an associate pastor, and other leaders of the Millersville Bible Church, 1940 New Danville Pike, have focused on planning. Masks are required, and members were also surveyed by email about when they would feel comfortable returning for in-person services.
Options in the survey included coming back with masks, social distancing or waiting until a vaccine was available.
Hine said nearly 300 members responded.
“We had, I would say, a broad spectrum of what people thought and what they might like, from people that said, ‘We’d like to come back now,’ and other people that say, ‘We’re not going to be prepared to come back until there’s a vaccine,’ ” Hine said.
To address the range of concerns, Millersville Bible Church holds an in-person indoor and outdoor service on Sundays at 8 and 9:30 a.m., respectively. While the indoor service is limited to 50 people, the outdoor service recently had about 240 people in attendance.
According to guidelines set by the State of Pennsylvania, there is a 250-person maximum for outdoor gatherings and 25-person maximum for indoor gatherings. Religious groups do not have to abide by the limits.
Moving into the fall, the church plans to continue the outdoor service, increase indoor service capacity to 100 people and change the indoor service time back to 8:20 a.m.
“We’ve decided to at least allow the number of people into the sanctuary to increase to 100, as long as nothing changes, as far as what we know,” Hine said.