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Churches limiting contact and panic among parishioners

As measures such as event cancelations, social distancing and limitations on public gatherings are being taken across the state to slow the spread of COVID- 19, local churches are trying to keep pace with the rapid changes involved with the ongoing outbreak. Within the past week, as the virus gained footholds in other areas of the U.S., churches in Loyal, Greenwood, Spencer and Granton have begun to take precautions to better protect their parishioners while still remaining open for prayer and worship.

For almost all the churches of the area, actions have been taken to reduce or entirely eliminate the amount of physical contact people may have when attending a church service or event at a parish. Some events that have been deemed nonessential have been canceled, but for the most part local pastors have said they will try to keep things as normal as they can.

“ W e ’ r e to be cautious, wash your hands a lot and for a long time, but we ’ ve been given the go-ahead to carry on,” said Rev. Patsy Roe, pastor of Loyal United Methodist Church and York Center United Methodist Church.

At her two parishes, with congregations under 40 at each church at a given service, Rev. Roe said there is not much of a concern among the parishioners that COVID-19 will be a problem, due to their small size. But she said they have already taken some steps to try and keep people healthy such as removing the sign of peace from services, changing how offerings are handled and canceling a few social events.

“No one was worried yesterday, no one has made any requests of closing,” she said. “We’re canceling social functions, yesterday we had a salad and soup luncheon that was canceled. We have one coming up in Loyal and that’s cancelled … We won’t do the sign of peace, and depending on how people feel we may put the offering plate in the foyer instead of handing it hand-in-hand. Because we’re not that large, there’s not as much exposure.”

Beyond those steps, Rev. Roe said she has been instructed by the leaders of the United Methodist Church to watch for local signs of the virus’ spread and to cancel services if there is a danger to the public. One of those signs, she said, was the closure of schools, but since the schools are being closed by order of Gov. Tony Evers

“We want to tell people this isn’t something to panic about. Remember God is with us and he will see us through.” -- Rev. Daniel Zimmerman, Loyal Trinity Lutheran Church instead of being closed due to exposure to COVID-19, she said they will try to keep the churches open as long as possible.

“I have the authority to cancel if it’s necessary,” she said. “We were told to keep an eye on the school system, if they cancel, churches should do the same … But we were thinking if the school was canceled due to exposure then we should cancel, but if we’re canceling because the big cities need to cancel then I don’t see why our churches need to be closed.”

In another part of Loyal, similar steps are being taken to limit potential exposure to the sickness. At Trinity Lutheran Church, Rev. Dan Zimmerman said they have cancelled Sunday School and a supper held between Lenten services on Wednesdays and have also eliminated Holy Communion, the sign of peace and the collection plate during Sunday services.

“We have called off Sunday School between services and supper between Lenten services on Wednesdays,” he said. “In worship, we’re doing some things recommended by our bishop, no Holy Communion, no sign of peace. They don’t shake hands and I don’t shake hands at the end of the service. We have hand sanitizer in the back of the church and we don’t pass along the collection plate. We are encouraging people to spread out on the pews as much as possible.”

With approximately 50 people attending each of two services held at Trinity Lutheran Church over a given weekend, Rev. Zimmerman said risk right now is minimal. It is hoped that quarantines and other precautions being taken at this time will be lifted in time for Easter, he said, but for now, the church will do its best to follow guidelines issued by the State Health Department.

“At this point we’re planning to continue to worship until the health department tells us not to,” he said. “We hope to have Easter Sunday services as normal, but we will listen to the health department.”

For the ONE in Christ three-point parish of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Greenwood, Nazareth Lutheran Church in Withee and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Longwood, more extreme measures are being taken in response to COVID-19. According to a press release from Rev. Elizabeth Bier of the ONE in Christ parish, Lent Wednesday night meal and worship, Luther League meetings and worship services at Nazareth Lutheran Church in Withee and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Longwood are canceled until April 5. However smaller gatherings, such as VBS plan- ning meetings, quilters, Zumba and Boy Scouts will still be allowed access to the churches.

“Our parish policy has been to follow what the schools are doing, and they are closed March 18 through April 5,” she stated in the press release.

Worship services are still planned for Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Greenwood as long as less than 50 people are in attendance. At the services, Rev. Bier said there will be no Communion, shaking hands or fellowship time following services and people should maintain the six-foot distance recommended by the Center for Disease Control when attending services. “The nave at Our Savior’s is large enough to accommodate the social distancing of 6 feet between people that the CDC recommends, unless we pass the 50 people threshold just announced on March 15,” she said.

To accommodate to the guidelines, Rev. Bier said the church will use Zoom video conferencing and Facebook Live to broadcast gatherings and worship services. Parishioners will be updated as more information is made available.

“We will re-evaluate the closures and modifications as we have more information and guidance from the CDC and local health authorities,” said Rev. Bier. “We will send an updated communication to the entire congregation by early April with our plans for after April 5. Right now, we hope to resume full activities for Holy Week, starting with Maundy Thursday on April 9.”

For the Catholic churches in the area, including St. Anthony in Loyal, St. Mary’s in Greenwood, Holy Family in Willard and Christ the King in Spencer, an announcement from the Bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse issued early last week advised that distribution of the Precious Blood and the sign of peace during Mass be suspended and fonts of holy water be drained until further notice.

Even though there is a lot of uncertainty amid the continual updates on COVID-19 in Wisconsin, the pastors of the area said it is important not to give in to fear but to trust and pray that God will make things better.

“We serve a mighty God,” said Rev. Roe. “Put trust in God and not in the media. Use your common sense, don’t put your hands up to your face a lot, take more precautions than before. If we will trust him, not get caught up in fear, just trust and obey, you will be filled with much less anxiety and fear.”

“We want to tell people this isn’t something to panic about,” added Rev. Zimmerman. “Remember God is with us and he will see us through.”