UMATILLA COUNTY — Some Umatilla County churches have reexamined their church service protocols following a COVID outbreak at a Union County church.
The Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City is now the site of the largest outbreak in Oregon since the pandemic began. The church is linked to at least 236 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Hermiston Assembly Associate Pastor Alex Valle-Lopez said that since the Union County outbreak, his church has been debating if they should remain open or temporarily close.
“As we’ve seen cases go up, there have been conversations among our staff,” he said. “We are thinking of closing as a preventative measure.”
Valle-Lopez said that conversations with other members of the church have ramped up and that although views may be polarizing on whether to go to church or stay home, there is no denying that cases are spiking.
He said that although the church is following the CDC recommended guidelines, including social distancing measures, sectioning off pews and limiting the number of families in the church, he is still unsure if they’ll remain open.
“We want to be proactive in ensuring health and safety in our building and staff,” he said. “We do not want that to be our case here. There is a strong possibility that this weekend we might just close out of abundance in caution.”
A since-deleted video of a church service in the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church showed members worshiping in close proximity to one another. Valle-Lopez said one way to help mitigate close contact in his congregation is to limit the number of people who can be in the church building. While the space can usually house about 500 people, they are now limiting it to just 60 people at a time.
“For us, it’s whatever keeps people safe is what we’re going to do,” he said.
As word was coming out of the Union County outbreak, Executive Pastor Wes Sheley at Pendleton First Assembly said it became clear that he needed to talk with their worshipers about safety.
“The outbreak is unfortunate,” Sheley said. “It’s an individual leadership and their decision, and it unfortunately affects a lot of people.”
Since the outbreak, Sheley noted more congregants have been attending services virtually, rather than in person. He said that the driving factor for the church’s safety protocols is to be there not just for one particular individual but for all individuals.
“Our heart’s desire is to care for the people in our church, but also for the people in our community,” Sheley said.
Sheley said Pendleton First Assembly is currently open and welcomes up to 130 people spread through the sanctuary. They have also added additional services throughout the week to get more worshipers in without needing to compromise distancing measures.
First Christian Church is among churches who have either delayed reopening plans or remain closed in response to the Union County outbreak. Loretta Hampton, moderator for the church, said they do not want to put their members at risk.
“We have a number of older members and feel that church is a lifelong habit,” she said. “They would come if we open, and it would not necessarily be safe.”
There are no set plans for reopening at this time.
“We were talking about it at our previous board meeting and news of the Island City church hit, and it reconfirmed our feeling of ‘let’s wait and see,’” Hampton said.
First Christian Church can seat up to 200 people, but typically about 80–90 people are in attendance.
Pastor Jonathan Mitchell at First Presbyterian Church noted a similar reason for delaying its opening.
“As a pastor, I would love to have the congregation together,” Mitchell said. “On the other hand, if we all got together and someone got ill from being together that would weigh on my conscience.”
Although the church is currently not open, they plan to reopen in August with “an abundance of caution.” Mitchell said that includes following regulations put forth by the governor and Oregon Health Authority. The pastor said that singing seems to be quite risky and the pandemic is changing the way the congregation worships with music.
With the requirements, only 35 family units are allowed in the sanctuary space, instead of 60–70 worshipers under pre-pandemic circumstances. Mitchell said that although this will create limitations, they are working on a system where people can call and reserve a spot. There will also be overflow rooms available where people can spread out and watch the livestream in the church.
According to Mitchell, many in the congregation fall into a high-risk category and said they are willing to wait until it is safer to attend. He said that as a pastor it has been challenging to make a plan regarding how to proceed with church service, especially with COVID-19 cases increasing.
“We want to be safe, we want to keep the people together, and it’s been challenging because you make a plan, and then the numbers change, the situation changes,” Mitchell said. “We are trying to balance this, find a way to bring people together, but do it in a way that keeps them safe.
Pastor Dan Satterwhite of Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Pendleton, the sister counterpart to the church linked to the outbreak, could not be reached for comment. He stated June 17 that they are currently still holding in-person services and approximately 30–50 people have attended in previous weekends.