Church steeple

A bird rests atop the steeple at Gospel Home Church in Hermiston on Friday.

Some Hermiston churches have ramped up their church service protocols following rising COVID-19 numbers in Umatilla County.

In light of increasing COVID-19 cases and the recent Lighthouse Pentecostal Church outbreak in Island City, some churches said they have been proceeding with more caution.

Pastor Patty Nance at Hermiston First United Methodist said the church is not open for service currently and that it does not feel safe to reopen anytime soon.

“I don’t think we’re going to reopen anytime soon,” she said. “COVID-19 is rising every day. Everybody should want to keep people safe. We have to be responsible for making that happen.”

In response to rising COVID-19 cases in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown’s new guidelines released on Monday, June 29, require all Oregonians statewide to wear a face covering in indoor public spaces starting Wednesday, July 1.

Kay Edwards, office administrator at Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church in Hermiston, stated the church will work with worshipers to comply with the new restrictions.

“We will post the governor’s restrictions on the doors and we will work to be in compliance with those restrictions,” she said.

Edwards said they have also modified their services and traditions since reopening to ensure safety, such as the way they receive communion.

She said that prior to COVID-19, churchgoers received communion in two lines. Now it’s a single-file line, 6 feet apart, to maintain social distancing. They’ve also eliminated singing and the sign of peace, a time during service when everyone shakes each other’s hand as a greeting. Services are also much shorter now.

“We are taking every major precaution to be socially responsible in protecting anyone that’s coming to one of our services,” she said.

The church also keeps exterior and interior doors propped open so people don’t have to reach for the handles. They have marked seating that is 6 feet apart, with every other pew blocked off. Hand sanitizer is also available throughout the church.

According to Edwards, 50% of attendees are back attending Mass since reopening, while others remain watching the livestream version.

Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church at full capacity can hold 850 people total, but with social distancing restrictions, the church can hold approximately 150 people — a combination of individuals, couples and family units. Edwards said ushers seat and direct everyone to make sure people are distancing safely.

The Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City outside of La Grande is now the site of the largest outbreak in Oregon since the pandemic began. The church is linked to at least 236 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Hermiston Assembly Associate Pastor Alex Valle-Lopez said since the Union County outbreak, his church has been debating if they should remain open or temporarily close.

“As we’ve seen cases go up, there have been conversations among our staff,” he said. “We are thinking of closing as a preventative measure.”

Valle-Lopez said that conversations with other members of the church have ramped up and that although views may be polarizing on whether to go to church or stay home, there is no denying that cases are spiking.

He said that although the church is following the CDC-recommended guidelines, including social distancing measures, sectioning off pews and limiting the number of families in the church, he is still unsure if they’ll remain open.

“We want to be proactive in ensuring health and safety in our building and staff,” he said. “We do not want that to be our case here.”

A since-deleted video of a church service in the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church showed members worshiping in close proximity to one another.

Valle-Lopez said one way to help mitigate close contact in his congregation is to limit the number of people who can be in the church building. While the space can usually house about 500 people, they are now limiting it to 60 people at a time.

“For us, it’s whatever keeps people safe is what we’re going to do,” he said.

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