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Churches eye fuller sanctuaries amid loosening COVID restrictions

With indoor masks no longer required, major changes may be coming to churches around Georgia - and the United States.

ATLANTA — Churches are rethinking their Sundays now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has loosened its guidance on indoor gatherings.

Friday, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta told churches in north and middle Georgia they could fill their churches to capacity starting Sunday.

While many churches reopened their sanctuaries months ago in suburban and rural Georgia, Atlanta-area churches have been more guarded.

Oak Grove United Methodist is one of them. In its 185 year history, Oak Grove Church has no year like it did in 2020. And its pastor is thrilled that it will soon change back.

“We know that many people have dearly missed being here in this space with each other,” the Rev. Beth LaRocca-Pitts said Friday.  

Oak Grove will reopen to a live audience in its sizable sanctuary on June 6. The move comes with many questions.

“Is it OK to sing? Does the choir have to be vaccinated? Do they have to wear masks when they sing? Does the congregation have to wear masks when they sing?” asked LaRocca-Pitts, in a stream of questions she knows will require answers.

Oak Grove has done virtual services for the last year – along with countless other churches all across the globe.  

“Most people feel that it’s essential to see their church community in person. And to be in the physical place that they consider their religious sanctuary,” the Rev. LaRocca-Pitts said.

Georgia’s episcopal diocese announced Friday that it will allow full capacity at church sanctuaries while loosening, but not eliminating, mask guidelines.

Some churches struggled to pay their bills as donations dropped over the last year.

“Currently we have the pews marked so you don’t sit in every pew. Do we have to do that still?” LaRocca-Pitts asked, the questions still streaming.

Though Oak Grove’s pastor said her church stayed solvent, in part with help from the government. Now, it’s down to the details of reopening.

“We’re going to have some people who want to come to church and who will not have been vaccinated and will not want to tell us that,” she said. “And we’re not going to make them prove it at the door. So it’s a challenge.”

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