Churches reopening for private prayer - what are the rules?
COVID19 safety guidance for churches beginning to come out of lockdown.
The UK Government initially announced that churches could reopen for private prayer from 15 June. However, in the latest guidance this was brought forward to 13 June.
Whilst there is no onus on a church to open its doors, here's what you should be doing if you plan to start accommodating visitors for this purpose. In fact, the guidance will also be relevant for other uses such as funerals and any essential voluntary activities (such as foodbanks and homeless services), which are also currently permitted uses providing they can be carried out safely.
What is individual private prayer?
Firstly, individual prayer within a place of worship is defined as a person or household entering the venue to pray on their own and not as part of a group, led prayer or communal act.
Managing the risks
Churches should initially carry out a risk assessment to determine if it is viable to open given the practicalities of your worship space and the vulnerability of those who may visit. It is worth mentioning that those who are shielding for medical reasons or because they are in vulnerable age groups should continue to do so. Churches also shouldn't allow people who are experiencing symptoms to enter.
Your risk assessment should look at the physical building and consider 'people flow' - how will you transit visitors through from entry to exit?
Can you implement a one-way system whereby entry is through one door and exit is through another?
Are there any potential pinch points or could there be some busy areas?
Assess whether, based on the size of your premises, you need to manage visitor numbers or restrict opening periods.
Churches who are more likely to know your visitors and have closer relationships, may wish to control this with booked time slots to spread visitors out across the week.
You'll need to measure out and perhaps cordone off areas so that you can ensure social distancing remains possible at 2 metres and be sure how many visitors you can accommodate safely at any one time.
Based on expected numbers, would a one-in, one-out system be appropriate?
Keep a log of who attends in case it is needed for Track & Trace purposes at a later stage. This is permissible under the GDPR data regulations and you can probably safely destroy the data after 14 days.
Consider also how you will communicate your proposed measures to attenders ahead of their visit and while they are on the premises. Do you need to install notices, signage and floor tape, for example, to show visitors what 2 metres looks like?
To ensure handwashing takes place at entry and at exit, the appointment of stewards may be necessary. Think about how you'll protect them too. Face coverings are not yet proven to be effective against contracting the coronavirus. However, wearing a face covering will offer others some protection if you happen to be carrying the virus and don't yet have any symptoms.
The Government advice also recommends removing any shared resources such as bibles, hymn books, etc. You can encourage visitors to bring their own but any take-home pieces such as tracts can remain in place. It may though be better to remove those too unless you can guarantee they are each not handled by more than one person.
You must also make provision for the use of toilet facilities with hand washing being possible (with hand sanitizer if running water and soap is not available). Paper towels are also preferrable to hand dryers. The safe disposal of these will also need to be considered.
Thorough cleaning, particularly of common spaces and items such as door handles, handrails, pew/chair backs, etc should be carried out before reopening and again at a frequency which local churches are allowed to determine for themselves.
Not just infection risks...
Aside from the measures you can undertake to prevent the spread of infection, there are some other practical steps to take prior to reopening your church.
It is likely that you shut off gas, water or electrical supplies while your building was unoccupied. You should check those installations before reopening to ensure visitors are entering an otherwise safe environment.
If maintenance checks or servicing are overdue, how will you ensure they are carried out? What are the risks?
Fire alarms, smoke detectors and emergency lighting equipment should also be tested and any necessary repairs made before members of the public enter your premises.
All usual health & safety requirements are in force in addition to these COVID19 measures of course.
We hope you found this useful. Sorry it's a bit of a list but we think that's probably the best way to transmit the information. You can use it almost as a checklist, coupled with any of your own building-specific measures that will ensure the protection of those who come under the care of your church, which of course, is the reason behind the guidance in the first place.
As we said at the outset, you don't have to reopen - it's entriely for you to decide what's possible given your own situation and resources.
Here's a copy of the Government's Full Guidance - COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship during the pandemic.