Waynesboro church holds in-person services days before Virginia's Phase 1
On May 15, Phase 1 of the 'Forward Virginia' plan for business restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic will allow churches to hold services inside their sanctuaries, with a limit of 50% of the building capacity.
However, despite Governor Ralph Northam's orders for in-person services (other than drive-in services) to remain suspended until then, one local church reopened on May 10.
"I personally feel so convicted that the government should never have any authority to determine how, or why, or when, or where anyone prays or worships or sings or opens a Bible," Pastor Josh Akin, with GraceBuilt Church in Waynesboro, said.
Akin said he wanted people to make the best decision for themselves and their families.
"If some people feel safe to worship in a small group with social distancing, and everything's super clean, and everyone's really spaced out," Akin said. "If they feel safe in that way, let's let them, and so as a church, we're letting people choose for themselves."
Akin says they held two services Sunday morning at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., but only allowed 30 percent capacity by keeping a tally at the door. He said neither service reached that capacity.
"We have spacing of each row so there are six feet of distance between each row of seats that are available," Akin said. "We also have enforced that people are sitting three seats away from each other, outside of their own household."
Akin said they've implemented additional changes to keep people safe like, no “Meet and Greet Time” during the service, propping open doors so there is no touching, providing hand sanitizer in multiple locations, and continuing routine cleaning and disinfecting procedures.
He says he thinks it isn't fair that stores are able to operate with crowds, but churches are not, which led to his decision to reopen early.
"If I gather with ten others, I'm in violation here, but if I gather with ten others to sing a song or read a Bible verse over here at Dollar General, it's just fine," Akin said.
Since Executive Order 53 was issued, instituting Virginia's 10-person gathering limit, churches have technically been allowed to hold services if fewer than 10 people are in the space; most have found ways to instead livestream services online or through social media or hold drive-in services to accommodate more people.
Akin said they will continue to offer virtual services and encourage people to watch from home, but wanted to let them make their own decisions. He said he encourages people to remain home if they are symptomatic or at a higher risk of getting COVID-19.
"I'm so happy that [next Sunday], every church in Virginia can gather up to 50 percent capacity, free from worry that police will come and shut them down, but I'm glad that this Sunday we had a chance to show that even if somebody doesn't approve, it's good for us to worship Jesus," Akin said. "Even when people are frowning at you, unhappy with you or insulting you, Jesus is worth it."
You can find the latest guidance for Virginia's Phase 1 plans