How should churches think about reopening?

New Warhorn Media post by Joseph Bayly:


A thought for while we’re still doing home worship: we really ought to gather with other Christians. That doesn’t mean all other Christians,even in normal times, but it probably does mean some. I’ve been thinking— but been too sluggish for doing— I ought to invite at least one other family over to my house to watch and sing together. Should I overcome my intertia?


By all means, yes.
Miss you, brother.

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This week I did get round to inviting two people over who would otherwise have worshipped alone. One is coming tomorrow; the other wondered why we asked, since we’re just going to watch on TV anyway. this makes me realize that people without spouse and kids are really missing out; a family at least has multiple people singing and bowing their heads together.


It seems that COVID-19 can spread when someone who is infected, even with very minor symptoms, breathes out virus particles that are then breathed in by other people in the same room. One person with cold-like symptoms infected 53 out of 61 people at a choir practice (3 hospitalizations, two deaths).

Anyone thinking about how to conduct corporate worship under such risks?

I sent this article to my elders earlier this week:

I can’t personally vouch for the author, but he has good credentials, and what he’s saying jibes with my experience so far.

Now that we are several weeks into the spread of this disease, we are starting to get our arms around what kinds of activities are more and less risky. Unfortunately for worshipers of Jesus, singing appears to be a relatively risky activity.


We certainly want to avoid the type of sickness and death scenarios the author references - restaurant, choir practice, workplace - but I don’t understand why I haven’t heard of big outbreaks at Lowes or Walmart (have I missed it?) among the workers, who are in contact with what must be hundreds of asymptomatic carriers each day. It strains my credulity to believe that EVERY ONE of those stores is doing such a great job of minimizing exposure that there’s been no outbreak even at the laxest store (which would immediately make national news, no?)

Understanding how real the threat is is central to figuring out how to reopen our churches.


Good question. I think it is likely not the case that there are “hundreds” of carriers passing through Lowes or Walmart every day – the disease simply doesn’t seem to be that prevalent across most of the U.S. yet. Plus, all the stores I’ve been in lately let in only a limited number of people at a time (small number of people in a large volume of air) and have set up plastic screens set up at the registers. And if asymptomatic carriers do come in, they are in the store only for a short period of time. I think there are some workers who are getting ill, but it doesn’t get in the news because it doesn’t spread to most of the other workers like in a call center or meat packing plant.


We’ve been in varying degrees of lockdown across the US for the last six to eight weeks, but pretty much all of us have continued to grocery shop on a semi-regular basis. And if we haven’t been, we live with someone who has been. If the disease were extremely transmissible in the environment of a grocery store, then it would be spreading in the population much faster than we’ve seen.

I’ve seen population penetration estimates as high as 12.5% (from a recent Boston antibody study). Let’s take an extreme lowball and say that penetration is 1% at this point. That means that 1 in 100 people have had it at some point in the last ~12 weeks. What percentage of that 1% went grocery shopping at some point when they were shedding the disease? Probably almost all of them, but let’s say half, giving us .5% of the population wandering through grocery stores shedding the virus. How many people does a typical grocery store see in a day, including workers, delivery people and customers? Certainly well into the hundreds, maybe into low four figures, with nearly 100% of the population having been in a grocery store at some point in the last 12 weeks. Any given grocery store in the US has seen many, many people through its doors who have been shedding Covid, yet the spread numbers alone tell us that we aren’t seeing it spread through that vector.

Why? That’s a $64,000,000 question.

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My pastor’s sermon today dealt with the importance of processing how to reopen through love and not stopping at knowledge. I found it very helpful and I commend it to all you brothers. It’s titled “Knowledge Makes Arrogant, but Love Edifies (1 Corinthians 8)” and audio is available here.

At our elders meeting this week we’ll be considering how and when to reopen. This was a timely word and I’m very thankful for it.



Okay, let’s run the numbers. In my metro area there are about 3.5 million people. Let’s say 2% have had the virus, which would be 70,000 and twelve times the number of reported cases. If people go to the grocery store one day a week, we could expect that 10,000 infected people would be in the store any day of the week. How many grocery stores are in a metro area of 3.5 million people? Google maps says there are about a dozen grocery stores in my urban “neighborhood”, which is about 1/40 the population of my metro area. Scaling it up results in about 500 grocery stores for the metro area, which means about 20 infected people per day in each grocery store. This is pretty far off from “hundreds” of carriers passing through every day and is probably a large overestimate anyway since it assumed that the 2% of the population who were infected asymptomatic carriers all went to the grocery store on the same week. If you spread it out over ten weeks, then you get 2 infected people per day in the grocery store.

I was going to tell you to look at “The Risks” paper linked above, but then I saw that you’re the one who posted it. :joy:

How many people, on average, were those two people infecting per day? It seems like pretty close to zero.

Re-aggregate it: Of the 1000 Covid + people who were in any grocery store in your area in a day, how many of them passed it to someone else in the grocery store? Again, looking at the nationwide curves, it looks like pretty close to zero.

Yes, the risks paper is pointing towards deep, heavy breathing as a major risk factor: Loud talking, singing, coughing/sneezing, probably exercising. That strikes me as plausible, given that very few of those activities seem to be taking place in stores. Grocery stores in particular, are usually very open and pretty well-ventilated.

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I agree. My back-of-the-envelope numbers were a response to @danielmeyer, who didn’t understand why he hadn’t heard of big outbreaks at Lowes or Walmart among the workers, who in his estimation were in contact with hundreds of asymptomatic carriers every day. As it turns out, however, the workers are not in contact with hundreds of carriers every day. It does appear that a couple of infected people passing through a grocery store per day isn’t a substantial source of transmission.

Running the numbers again, let’s assume 10% of the population attends church. Going back to my numbers above, that would be 7000 infected people going to church in my metro area. Google maps indicates there are about twice as many churches as grocery stores in my neighborhood, so that would be 1000 churches in my metro area, or 7 infected people per church. Spreading it out over seven weeks results in one asymptomatic carrier per week in the church, which is not much smaller than the grocery store number. In that case, the question is whether there are greater risk factors in a church than a grocery store. In comparison to a grocery store visit, my guess is that in a church service people will be more closely spaced in a smaller volume of air over a longer period of time with more breathing out of the mouth via singing and responsive readings.

Our Session met (remotely) yesterday with a physician in our church to discuss steps to reopening. Droplet and surface transmission can be minimized by masks and disinfecting wipedowns, but small virus particles drifting through the air would be tough to deal with.


Here’s a report from the CDC that shows how much COVID-19 can spread in a church when no precautions are taken – 35 out of 92 people became infected and 3 died. (People had not yet realized that COVID-19 had arrived in the local area.) My main takeaway from the article is that if anyone is feeling a little ill or has been in close contact with someone feeling ill, that person should absolutely not come to church.

The elders and deacons of our church had Zoom meeting tonight to discuss when we will meet hold worship services in person since our state and county is reopening churches. We decided not to meet this coming Lord’s Day to give more time to see what is happening in churches elsewhere in the country, which reopened several weeks ago, and also to give more time for the deacons to obtain cleaning supplies, which have been hard to come by. Our target reopening date is the beginning of June, and we will comply with all state guidelines – max 25% room capacity, people 6 feet apart, masks, no singing, no responsive reading, and no communion. Our resident physician says the guidelines are only informed opinions since not much is known about the virus, but we think it is best to submit to the state guidelines. Our physician says there is no way to be completely safe, but we think these will be acceptable risks. We will recommend that elderly and people with health conditions continue to stay home, and we will stream the service for them.