Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series looking at local effects and repercussions of the State of Illinois’ decision and preparation to reopen fully for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly 500 days ago. Known as Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan, the restrictions on all indoor and outside crowd gatherings are expected to lift Friday. Read Part 1 here.
DeKALB – A couple dozen parishioners sat spread apart throughout the pews during daily Mass service on Thursday at Newman Center Catholic Church in DeKalb – though clergy is anticipating a larger group come Sunday.
Rev. Kyle Manno, priest at Newman Center, said everything through the church – including mass, bible study and social events – moved to a digital format at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As daily life began to reopen in summer 2020 and indoor gathering restrictions loosened, the center gradually allowed more churchgoers into chapel services in person, only recently doing away with electronic sign-up sheets to attend mass and stay within capacity limits.
“Now we’re doing almost no virtual events and we can do all in person,” Manno said.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced Thursday the state will enter Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan Friday. That means a full reopening and no gathering restrictions on indoor or outdoor activities as COVID-19 virus activity continues to trend downward since the arrival of vaccines.
Guidelines for Phase 5 begin Friday, and businesses, restaurants, bars, large-scale events, conventions, amusement parks, zoos and seated spectator events will be able to operate at full capacity. Larger outdoor festivals can be held at no patron capacity restrictions. Illinois will remain in line with face mask guidance from the CDC, meaning fully vaccinated individuals are no longer required to wear a mask indoors and outdoors. Exceptions to that guideline include wearing a face mask where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
Those who aren’t vaccinated are asked to continue wearing masks, which still are required for all people while traveling on public transportation, in congregate settings, in health care settings, in schools, in day cares and at educational institutions
Businesses and local municipalities can put in place additional mitigations as they deem appropriate.
Manno said the church used to have a section of pews for those who still wanted to wear masks for any reason during services, but come this weekend, the church won’t keep that designated section, though staff found that only a handful of parishioners took advantage of that seating anyway.
Pastor Joe Mitchell, senior pastor at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, said church staff on Wednesday were preparing for an upcoming wedding, which will be the first the church has hosted with no capacity limits since the onset of the pandemic. He said the church will continue its sanitizing protocols and have separate masked attendee seating, getting the idea from Newman Center after hearing about it through the grapevine.
Though the church will keep its skeleton crew of church service musicians, Mitchell said a full church choir will not return with the full reopening just yet.
“We’ll continue to watch [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] numbers – maybe by the end of the year, our choir will return,” Mitchell said. “Most likely, it will probably be the beginning of 2022.”
Mitchell said the Baptist church has adjusted to the pandemic by also having virtual services, which he anticipates keeping beyond the pandemic for wider accessibility for congregants. He said he also anticipates continued use of the church’s “Praise in the Parking Lot,” which involves an approach similar to how patrons would attend a drive-in movie theater.
Outside the box
Manno said the way priests give communion at the Catholic church has changed in the previous 15 months. That change will continue, he said, with priests allowing congregants to choose whether to take communion with their tongue with clergy spraying quick-dry sanitizer on their hands in between distributions, with their hands or take a verbal blessing instead.
When it comes to parishioner outreach, Manno said the pandemic has forced clergy to think outside the box, such as meeting churchgoers at their homes in they’re limited by travel.
He said he expects to keep that outreach approach beyond the pandemic, recalling one instance of a congregant who hadn’t been to Mass in person for a while who was moved to tears by a home visit.
“Especially those who are most marginalized, they need to be seen and loved,” Manno said. “So that’s been a grace from the pandemic, is that new exuberance for that.”
Manno said overall church attendance has reduced over the course of the pandemic. Before the pandemic hit, he said crowds at Mass would top off at about 250 or 300 people.
“Now it’s about 150,” Manno said. “So it’s still a lot of people that we are trying to bring back.”
Mitchell said New Hope is seeing similar attendance declines due to the pandemic. However, he also recalled Easter services this year which were standing room only at New Hope.
“So it just tells me people are ready,” Mitchell said. “They’re ready.”
Manno pointed to a common phrase in the Bible when referring to the statewide reopening: “Do not be afraid.”
“We accommodate for them to feel comfortable and safe back in the church – we don’t want anyone to be nervous or scared during worship,” Manno said. “We really think that this is now a time to let God do amazing things in our hearts. We were closed for a long time. But now that the doors are open, let’s send the good news to people, fill them with love and life and then send them out there on a mission to love other people.”
Rob Feldacker, president of Congregation Beth Shalom in DeKalb, said he doesn’t anticipate in person services immediately returning for the synagogue and that the congregation has “been really cautious this entire pandemic.” He said the congregation’s board has a larger elderly population to consider in deciding to still keep with a virtual platform for the time being.
“A lot of them are very vulnerable and we also still have some members with children who are too young to be vaccinated yet,” Feldacker said. “So we are just starting to move to the idea of getting the whole congregation together outdoors.”
Feldacker said the board initially considered a hybrid approach, blending modern and Orthodox Judaism for services, which would have included congregants washing their hands before services. However, they still ran into concerns about the worship space not allowing for adequate social distancing.
That compounded on the reality that the synagogue’s Sabbath services are almost entirely song and response, Feldacker said.
“Like, what is the most dangerous thing you can do? Gather people in a small, not very well-ventilated room and sing together, or have a group of stronger singers ... singing out to them,” Feldacker said.
More traditional Muslim customs for services at the Islamic Center of DeKalb have also taken a different aproach in the past 15 months, said Mohammed Labadi, the center’s president. For example, Muslims typically pray together shoulder to shoulder inside the mosque and it has been an adjustment to pray at a distance whenever congregants gathered in person, he said.
“So we are eager to go back to that as long as it’s safe,” Labadi said.
Labadi said observing Ramadan during the pandemic felt different as well. Muslims who fast during the holiday typically break the fast with a larger gathering and meal among the congregation, he said – although The Huddle, the restaurant his family owns, did provide sponsored meals for those observing the holiday.
“But it’s not the same,” Labadi said. “It’s not the same as sitting together and eating together.”
Labadi said it would make sense for the mosque to still keep services available online beyond the pandemic as well.
“Because there are other people that are not able to come under normal circumstances that are benefiting from this,” Labadi said. “You know, we’ve got the technology going, so why not?”
Katie Finlon covers local government and breaking news for DeKalb County in Illinois. She has covered local government news for Shaw Media since 2018 and has had bylines in Daily Chronicle, Kendall County Record newspapers, Northwest Herald and in public radio over the years.