After over a year of accommodating ever-changing COVID-19 mitigation practices and a vulnerable elderly congregation, Grace Bible Church in Sun City is looking forward to having their congregation fill the pews on Easter Sunday.
Despite being open for in-person services during the Christmas holidays, church spokesperson Linda Williams said this Easter feels like a return to some normalcy thanks to Arizona’s increased vaccine rollout providing some protection for the congregation of over 700 people.
“People slowly started coming back because they were afraid of being with a crowd of people because of COVID,” said Mrs. Williams. “We’ve got several coming now and, especially since a lot of us have gotten the vaccine or have been vaccinated, they feel safer about coming. So we see our numbers constantly, continually increasing.”
When Gov. Doug Ducey lifted all remaining COVID-19 mitigation mandates on March 25 amid an increase in vaccinations and a decline in new coronavirus cases, many Arizona cities and businesses welcomed the news by removing their mask and social distancing requirements. The executive order also allowed groups of over 50 people to gather without permission from the government.
According to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services, Arizona reported 381 new coronavirus cases and 10 additional deaths Thursday, bringing the state’s totals to 842,192 and 16,977 since the start of the pandemic. Just over 30% of the state’s population has been vaccinated.
Despite the lift, Grace Bible Church is keeping many of their mitigation practices in place for services on the often crowded Easter holiday in keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Masks and social distancing will be required and the entire church will undergo a deep sanitation between each of its three services. The church choir will be reduced from 100 singers to just 60 so they can properly space out.
“We want to still maintain the CDC guidelines and what the federal government is mandating,” Mrs. Williams explained. “I know the governor lifted that and we’re grateful for that. As far as the church goes, we’re still trying to maintain the safety of our people.”
Grace Bible Church has offered a virtual viewing option for years, which many still view in order to worship from the comfort of their homes. Mrs. Williams said those who won’t come back while masks are still required or those who still feel uncomfortable in a big crowd are thankful for the option.
While Grace Bible Church is still maintaining its mitigation efforts, others are taking a different approach.
At Avondale Church of God, Mr. Ducey’s order didn’t have much of an impact; Pastor Keenan Ward said his church never instituted mask or social distancing requirements throughout the pandemic, as the governor’s original order exempted places of worship from the requirements. The church closed its doors for two weeks in March 2020 before opening for in-person services once again.
“We never did do any social distancing or mask requirements, we left it up to the individual to make their own decision in their own comfort zone,” said Pastor Ward. “Basically, this Easter will be no different than what we’ve been doing this week.”
The pastor estimates that 40 to 50% of his 100 person congregation has come down with the coronavirus and recovered, including himself, and the church asks anyone who feels sick to stay home like they do during cold and flu season. Services are also live streamed online.
Pastor Ward said his congregation was thankful for the freedom to choose, and especially grateful for only a short disruption in in-person church services.
“We never felt that we were careless,” he said. “We felt that we made adult decisions.”
Like Avondale Church of God, Scottsdale Bible Church is leaving it up to the individual to decide whether they want to wear a face covering or distance from others across its three Valley campuses, including one in Cave Creek and one in North Phoenix.
“We continue to respect the choices people make regarding mask wearing for themselves and their family members,” said church communications director Jill Hoekstra in an email.
Additionally, socially distant balcony seating will be available in the worship center and two other auditoriums, and the congregation will be able to watch Saturday and Sunday services online.
While Scottsdale Bible Church has been open for in-person services with reduced capacity and social distancing since late August 2020, the governor’s most recent order allowed them to offer less distanced seating for those who feel comfortable. Whatever the congregation decides to do is just fine with the church, said Mrs. Hoekstra.
“We know that many are looking forward to experiencing our Easter services this year and are grateful for the opportunity to gather,” she said. “As always, we remain respectful and honoring of those who choose to continue worshipping with us online.”