Church reopens cautiously. What’s the risk?

Ministerio Jesus Vive Hoy, a predominantly Hispanic church in Miramar, recently resumed in-person services after being closed for nearly two months due to the pandemic.

Close to 80 worshippers attended each service over the weekend of June 6-7 while adhering to new protocols and distancing rules.

Church members were checked for fever as they entered and given hand sanitizer. Ushers with masks and gloves led them to their seats, with yellow tape ensuring members did not sit too close to each other. Blue tape on the ground guided attendees as they steadily filed into the church.

Josue Hernandez, 19, volunteered to staff the entrance as worshippers arrived.

“Online services on YouTube and weekly meetings on Zoom weren’t the same experience as being physically present at church,” he said. “But it [also felt] odd being at church with a mask and gloves on.”

Church-goers were anxious to return to in-person services. The last formal service was held on Sunday, March 15.

Two months prior, the church decided to suspend its in-person activities, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’s permitting places of worship to remain open during the shutdown.

“We prepared a contingency plan ahead of time in case the church had to close down for an extended period of time,” said Dolores DeLeon, a senior staff member. 

“My role was to gather information such as resources, food banks, and county-wide updates for members who were in need.”

She explained that the church created a database of members’ contact information in case of emergencies and set up Zelle and PayPal accounts to receive weekly donations from congregants.

Church service being broadcast live on YouTube from an empty church. (Courtesy of Esteban Zapico)

Online services continued on weekends through YouTube, and weekday activities were hosted on Zoom as the building remained closed throughout the pandemic.

Rev. Dr. Jose Zapico streamed his services through YouTube and Facebook Live to hundreds of members every week. 

“When we decided to close the church for an indefinite time, it was difficult for me to transition,” he said. 

“I found myself, along with fellow pastors and other religious leaders, turning to social media and the internet to continue preaching to my congregation.”

As the state began re-opening on May 4 in accordance with Gov. DeSantis’s “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step.” plan, the church didn’t rush to open. Instead, it carefully made a plan.

Staff members prepared protocols for the church’s eventual reopening, carefully reading CDC and Florida Department of Health guidelines for places of worship.

The staff came up with strict cleaning and disinfecting procedures to prepare for reopening. To avoid large crowds forming, many of the public gathering sections of the church – such as the lobby, meeting rooms, and the church’s bookstore – were closed to the public with yellow caution tape. The water fountain was turned off and a limited number of people could go to the bathroom at a time.

The church opened at 25 percent capacity and plans to increase to 50 percent within the next couple of weeks. There is no timeline as to when everything will return to normal.

“For now, we won’t be able to hug and kiss each other on the cheek like we used to before,” said DeLeon. “You don’t know what you have until you lose it.”

Angelo Gomez is a journalism and political science double major at Florida International University. He enjoys writing stories about politics and national issues that affect South Florida. He is currently a Hamilton Scholar for the Honors College advocating for immigration reform in Washington DC. He hopes to have a future in immigration and making a change in the country. He is a huge Marvel and Star Wars nerd, lover of all sports and a politics geek.