Health officials explain how to safely gather for worship services as NC loosens restrictions

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As North Carolina begins loosening restrictions of the state stay-at-home order, many wondered whether they could gather for religious services.

On the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services website, officials wrote that outdoor worship services are allowed. In a Frequently Asked Questions document, officials clarified, "Places of worship may hold services that exceed the Mass Gathering Limit of ten people if those services are held outdoors in an unenclosed space and if attendees follow Recommendations to Promote Social Distancing and Reduce Transmission."

During a news conference Monday, North Carolina DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen clarified that outdoor activities are considered "low-risk" for the spread of COVID-19, while indoor activities may present a higher risk for transmission.

While Cohen encouraged faith leaders to hold services outdoors, where they could ask their congregations to spread out, wear face coverings and stay seated, she said indoor services are not banned under the stay-at-home order.

She said when people move indoors, there are more considerations to take into account--air flow and how easily particles can spread around a room, surfaces that people touch frequently such as door handles and shared facilities, and how many people can fit in a room and still maintain social distancing.

But Cohen added that worship services have a special legal status. "We don't want to interrupt anyone's ability to worship, to pray, but we want to keep folks safe," Cohen said. "That's why we're trying to find this middle ground."

If a religious group is unable to worship outdoors, Cohen offered a few options for keeping congregants safe.

"If you need to come indoors, we want you to stay below 10 people," Cohen said. "Can you use online streaming to do worship services? Can you stagger? Can you go into multiple rooms so that folks aren't in the same physical place, again, so there's different air movement, different surfaces that people are touching?"

Cohen also stressed that during services--whether indoors or outdoors--attendees should continue to practice the "three W's": wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and washing hands frequently.
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