Some East County churches open to live services with precautions.
Jack Milholland, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church in Lakewood Ranch, watched as people walked into the church single file to receive communion May 10.
Although faces were hidden behind masks, he could still see the joy they had from being able to return after weeks of the church being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They say eyes are the gateway to the soul, and you could see the love people had to be able to come back into church,” Milholland said.
Some churches in East County are slowly reopening their doors for in-person services while following social distancing guidelines and ensuring the churches are safe.
On May 12, the Diocese of Venice announced Catholic churches in the diocese, which includes Our Lady of the Angels, could reopen for in-person Mass starting May 18.
“We’ve stayed connected with a multitude of our parishioners online, but it’s nothing like actually seeing them and having them back in full and active participation in Mass,” Milholland said.
Our Lady of the Angels was open the week of May 4 for private prayer only and started serving communion May 10.
Milholland said people followed protocols “near perfectly.”
“It was a good sign that people understood what we are asking them to do,” he said. “They were following directions and were patient. I think that’s the key to reopening our church or any church. People will have to have a degree of patience as things are changing.”
All churches reopening have put guidelines in place, which include limiting the capacity to 25%, enforcing social distancing and having church doors remain open, so their members don’t have to touch them. Some are requiring parishioners to wear masks.
To help with social distancing, churches are spacing chairs 6 feet apart and removing excess chairs or blocking off pews or portions of the church to ensure people are spaced apart appropriately.
Parishioners will be able to enjoy in-person services at Risen Savior Lutheran Church and Lakewood Ranch Baptist Church starting May 24.
“We’re excited but cautious,” said Rick Hardison, the lead pastor at Lakewood Ranch Baptist Church. “If I were to compare it to, say, retail or a restaurant, you can buy things without going to the store, or you can eat without going to a restaurant, but what makes the church the church is the gathering.”
Pastor Caleb Free with Risen Savior Lutheran Church said the church decided to open its doors after polling its parishioners with two-thirds saying they feel comfortable returning.
Risen Savior is limiting each of its services to 50 people with services at 8 and 10:30 a.m. Sundays and will add a third service if more people wish to attend.
“It’ll be different, but just like we’ve had to adjust to online worship, we’ll adjust to this,” Free said. “We’ll take it week by week.”
Hardison said he looks forward to hearing his congregation sing together once again.
“With the online worship experience, that is the most awkward,” he said. “That’s the thing that has been most lacking. You can hear a sermon online, but there is something about singing to the Lord with hundreds of other people that is encouraging.”
Although some churches have decided to open their doors, others have chosen to continue to conduct services online.
Bayside Community Church is using Gov. Ron DeSantis’ phased reopening plan as a guide.
When DeSantis begins phase two of the plan, Bayside will offer in-person growth track classes and some small groups following CDC guidelines that limit groups to fewer than 10 people and abide by social distancing.
Bayside will continue online services until the state enters into phase three, at which point the church will reopen with all programs.