Dump the mask? Some places of worship say not so fast

Mary Beth McKenna, director of religious education, posts signs on May 23, 2020, ahead of daily Mass resuming at St. Benedict Catholic Church in metro Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Mary Beth McKenna, director of religious education, posts signs on May 23, 2020, ahead of daily Mass resuming at St. Benedict Catholic Church in metro Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

To mask or not to mask?

That’s the question some houses of worship are grappling with following revised recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors and outdoors in most situations.

“We’re scrambling right now to answer that question,” said the Rev. Dock Hollingsworth, senior pastor of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, who said he has fielded emails and calls from members about the guidance, which still recommends unvaccinated people and those with a weakened immune system wear masks.

Most church leaders contacted said they must rely on people’s honesty and their care for others. They won’t ask for proof of vaccination.

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The Holy Bible sits on the communion table during the Palm Sunday service at Second-Ponce De Leon Baptist Church in this AJC file photo. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Holy Bible sits on the communion table during the Palm Sunday service at Second-Ponce De Leon Baptist Church in this AJC file photo. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

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The Holy Bible sits on the communion table during the Palm Sunday service at Second-Ponce De Leon Baptist Church in this AJC file photo. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Hollingsworth said a church task force is currently reviewing the changes and will make recommendations and offer timelines. He said it’s unlikely those changes will be in place for Sunday’s services, but “certainly we will have made changes by next Sunday.”

Just recently the church started holding in-person worship services that were limited to 50 people at a time. Congregants had to make reservations and were given temperature checks. Specially designed masks were made for members of the choir.

He’s not sure what will happen now and is particularly concerned about families with children and those with compromised immune systems. “So much of the church experience is seeing people, smiling and hugging and all of that,” he said. “The sooner we get back to those relational experiences, the better.”

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He expects some people will continue to wear the masks and others “will be delighted to take it off.”

Still, after a year or so of masking up and social distancing, the changes may create some anxiety and, perhaps, tension in the pews.

The Most Rev. Gregory J. Hartmayer recently offered guidance in a memo for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta.

The archdiocese will continue to recommend masks at Masses, but will give pastors discretion to allow vaccinated people to remove them.

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Deacon Fred Johns presided over "Drive-In" Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament in this March 25, 2020 file photo where some 50-cars attended in the parking lot at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers. Normally Adoration occurs in small chapels outside the main sanctuary when Mass is not being celebrated. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese and around the world have been implementing creative ways to serve the faithful. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Deacon Fred Johns presided over "Drive-In" Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament in this March 25, 2020 file photo where some 50-cars attended in the parking lot at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers. Normally Adoration occurs in small chapels outside the main sanctuary when Mass is not being celebrated. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese and around the world have been implementing creative ways to serve the faithful. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Deacon Fred Johns presided over "Drive-In" Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament in this March 25, 2020 file photo where some 50-cars attended in the parking lot at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers. Normally Adoration occurs in small chapels outside the main sanctuary when Mass is not being celebrated. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese and around the world have been implementing creative ways to serve the faithful. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

“Those who are not vaccinated should still wear a mask,” the memo stated. “We will have to rely on peoples’ honesty, as we cannot ask for their personal health information.”

The relaxing of the mask mandate “caught us off guard,” said the Rev. Bill Britt, senior pastor of Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta. “We had just relaxed some requirements like temperature checks and people making reservations.”

The church posted a message on its website that fully vaccinated people will no longer be required to wear face masks to attend services. However, congregants who have not been fully vaccinated are “encouraged” to do so.

“We want to protect the health of our children who have not been vaccinated,” Britt said.

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At Mars Hill Community Church in Powder Springs, neither masks nor social distancing is mandated at either of the two Sunday morning services, according to an email response from Executive Pastor Kirk Pratt.

Since October 2020, the church has offered a 6 p.m. Saturday service where masks and distancing will continue to be required.

“As the pandemic conditions locally have improved, we have worked to provide services with different levels of protection and distancing to align with the varying concern and precaution levels of our members and the community,” according to Pratt.

The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta also issued its recommendations.

While the CDC’s new guidelines “are welcome news for us as individuals, they represent continued complications for us as a community of faith made up of vaccinated, partially vaccinated and unvaccinated persons, as well as overwhelmingly unvaccinated young people and those of all ages who are immunocompromised,” Bishop Robert Wright said in a statement Friday.

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AJC file photo

AJC file photo

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AJC file photo

With fewer than 30% of Georgians fully vaccinated, the church will have to decide how best to “honor both the freedom of some and the welcome of all, equally,” Wright said. “In our enthusiasm, my hope is that we will not inadvertently shame people or develop two tiers of membership in Christ’s church.”

Wright’s statement also revised several service protocols, including allowing fully vaccinated worship leaders to go without masks when leading services (except when distributing Communion) and allowing fully vaccinated choirs to sing without masks.

Generally, masks should continue to be worn by all in settings when vaccination status of participants is unknown, the guidance says.