Churches welcome people back to in-person, unmasked services
Like all other industry sectors, church celebrations and religious services got the green light to return to totally normal operations on June 15.
With no more capacity limitations, physical distancing requirements or mask mandates, places of worship are now able to hold services like they used to pre-pandemic.
For example, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — of which Santa Barbara County is a part — released guidelines on liturgical celebrations and religious services ahead of June 15’s reopening.
The Archdiocese wrote that churches can get rid of prearranged reservation systems and bring back the following Catholic Mass traditions: group meetings, ministerial gatherings, social gatherings, liturgical singing, hymnals, missalettes, worship aids, collection baskets, Holy Communion at its regular time in the service, confession, anointing of the sick and more.
In addition, the Archdiocese stated in its guidelines that while masks are required for unvaccinated individuals outdoors when social distancing is not possible and at all times indoors, “Parishes are not to verify who is and who is not vaccinated.”
Rather, they must simply post signage to indicate the guidelines.
Trinity Episcopal Church in the 1500 block of State Street had its first Sunday services without the capacity restrictions.
Betty Wenzel, director of communications for the church, said that when the church resumed in-person services at the end of May, they were at capacity every week.
In addition, she told the News-Press, “We’ve seen a steady number of people attending (100+) for the 10 a.m. service in person and 40+ households continue to attend online, watching the livestream.”
This past weekend was Solvang’s Santa Ines Mission’s first full service back in person as well. Father Bobby Barbato told the News-Press that between each of the weekend masses — two on Saturday evening and four on Sunday — there were approximately 100 people at each, and around 20% wore masks.
Father Barbato said that when churches were able to return to in-person with restrictions in late April, they were only able to actually sing the “Alleluia” together at the end of Easter Sunday mass. Over this past weekend, Santa Ines went from one cantor and zero singing back to a full choir.
“It just hit me that I sang this time, and it was kind of like Easter — a little bit of a resurrection here,” the priest said. “It was just a joy to see some people I haven’t seen for a while who had been following us online, to see them here, to see the smiles and to just be back together. It was just joy, just gladness.”
Up until this past weekend, Santa Ines had to approve a list of attendees for each mass, bring Communion out to attendees in their vehicles listening to the service on the radio and enforce all of the COVID restrictions. However, Father Barbato said around half of the more at-risk populations, such as individuals over 70, continued to show up in person amid the restrictions.
“They’re very dedicated and wanted to be there. I wasn’t going to stop them,” he said, chuckling. The priest added that he continues to pray “very hard” that the region doesn’t get impacted by another COVID variant.
Furthermore, Father Barbato said that he’s looking forward to meeting some community members who may have just started watching church services online, and to see if they want to try an in-person service.
“My hope is they’ll think, ‘Well, let me experience this in person,’” he said. “I’m sure there may be a few people who like being able to watch in their pajamas, which is OK, but I’m pretty confident we’ll get a good number of people back, and some new people too.”
Waypoint Church Santa Barbara, located in the San Roque area and a member of the Los Angeles International Church of Christ, is continuing to hold services outdoors, both for the comfort of churchgoers and as a result of Santa Barbara’s temperate climate.
Tarik Burton, the new head minister at Waypoint, told the News-Press that church staff are working with the current building owners to look at a date to move operations back indoors. But he said, “We’re in no rush, because we feel like outdoor worship is going really well. People love it. I think a lot of people feel comfortable that we are outside.”
At the height of the pandemic, Mr. Burton explained, more than 100 members of the community tuned into Waypoint’s live streamed services on YouTube. Since residents were able to return to Waypoint in person starting April 1, that number tuning in online now averages between 30 and 50 weekly.
The minister said the groups of churchgoers not returning include some members of the elderly population who are still hesitant, and UCSB students unable to be on campus.
These days, Waypoint is averaging at about 80 to 100 attendees in person per service, and while some individuals still wear their masks for various reasons, few don them anymore.
“It was tough to do church for over a year online strictly, and a lot of people felt isolated and it was just challenging,” Mr. Burton said. “But restarting in-person church has really given us a lot of energy, encouragement and excitement, and it feels good to meet together again in person.”
The new head minister said that there haven’t been any issues with the new guidance, and churchgoers respect those who may feel a little less comfortable, and vice versa. That being said, Mr. Burton pointed out that he’s seen many new faces coming every week, so “they’re getting more and more comfortable with outdoor worship in person.”
“I grew up in churches. I’m 29 years old, and that’s 29 years of just being in a church,” Mr. Burton said. “So when you’re going to something a lot, it becomes a part of your life, and the significance of it you kind of lose sight of.
“What the pandemic has done for me personally is that it created a newfound appreciation of just meeting in church and understanding that, look, what we have here is truly special and I don’t want to take it for granted … It’s always been the highlight of my week, but it’s just became even more so.”