Pandemic Past, Pandemic Present: Masks and Social Distancing
By Andrew Gardner | Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations
Earlier this month, the Center for Disease Control updated their recommendations for combatting the new Delta variant of the coronavirus. New data suggests that while vaccines are still highly effective against severe disease and hospitalization from the new variant, vaccinated individuals may still be able to transmit the disease to individuals who have not gotten vaccinated. With large segments of the population still unvaccinated and/or vulnerable including children, immunocompromised, and those who have yet to get the vaccine, the updated guidelines seek to curb the rapidly spreading variant. As a result, many religious congregations that are currently gathering in person are having to reevaluate their safety measures.
Congregations that planned to return to in-person worship in the Fall are having to reevaluate plans for returning to in-person worship. During the Influenza pandemic in 1918, congregations too had to contend with multiple waves of infections and be ready to respond quickly to changes in the spread of disease. Many of the practices that churches have been encouraged to implement to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 were similar to congregational practices responding to the outbreak of influenza over 100 years ago.
Seeking to keep members safe, churches in 1918 followed the best public health practices of the day in order to ensure that in-person gatherings would not put their most vulnerable members at risk of disease.
Like the coronavirus, influenza spread quickly through airborne droplets. Wearing masks provided one way that religious congregations altered their usual practices in order to protect their membership. Mask orders in 1918 were not always “compulsory,” but doctors argued that “all persons going to church without protection are endangering the lives, not only of themselves, but of all others in attendance.”
Ministers in Wilmington, North Carolina argued that churches should be allowed to meet if members wore “’germ proof’ gauzes over their mouths and nostrils.” One short poem in the Seattle Post Intelligencer highlighted the importance of masks despite their discomfort. “Mother has a fetching mask,/Without a trace of rust;/She’s painted on a little sign;/It says: “In Gauze We Trust.”
While some individuals placed great emphasis on the importance of wearing masks, not all Americans supported such practices and the city of San Francisco even witnessed the creation of the Anti-Mask League. Similarly, in places like Denver, there was not enough voluntary mask-wearing, leading local police to begin enforcing mask orders which extended to both movie theaters and churches, according to a 1918 Denver Post article.
Congregations in 1918 also recognized that they could institute other practices that might make gathering safer. Churches sought to make sure their worship space was “well ventilated” in order to ensure that there was “no risk of spreading the disease.”
In October, according to a 1918 article in The Chicago Herald and Examiner, health officials in Chicago told local ministers, “The windows and doors of the churches should remain wide open. The congregations should be asked to keep on their coats and wraps.”
Houses of worship across the country braved the elements either meeting outdoors or opening the windows and doors of their congregations. In the perpetually rainy Pacific Northwest, some churches in Seattle reportedly gathered outside in “cold, rainy weather,” according to the Seattle Daily Times. Keeping adequate airflow within church buildings or meeting outside provided safer ways to meet amidst the pandemic.
Spokane, Washington experienced a six-week period of quarantine where churches were prohibited from gathering in person. When local officials lifted these restrictions, they allowed congregations to begin worshipping in person with a number of guidelines similarly instituted in the fight against the coronavirus in 2020. While the local health edicts allowed churches continue the practices of “solo or choir selections” in worship services, Spokane officials prohibited the practice of communal singing in order to limit the amount of virus that might circulate in the air. Congregations were also required to rope off every “alternate row of pews” in order to ensure that congregants would be spread out around the sanctuary.
These practices and rules took many people off-guard as they had to adjust to new and sometimes cumbersome public health guidelines. The Los Angeles Times joked that in Pasadena, California, churches were able to begin worshipping in person providing they practice the “two-foot rule.” The paper poked fun at the measure, joking how people were “unprepared” for estimating two feet. Persons might find themselves “27 or 28 inches apart and then the conservationists would denounce them for extravagance and waste of room.” Was a young woman boasting or complaining of her boyfriend when she exclaimed, “Jack is a bold one. He got within 18inches of me last night and he almost blew a kiss my way. That man ain’t afraid of anything!”
Regardless of how seriously individuals implemented the “two-foot rule,“ it reveals that congregations in 1918 wrestled with how much to distance members from one another very similar to congregations in 2020 and 2021.
These adaptations are so striking because they are so similar to the adaptations churches used and are continuing to use to limit the spread of coronavirus. While the similarities between congregational responses to these two pandemics are remarkable, they also point towards the role religious congregations play in maintaining public health.
Churches operated on the front lines of the pandemic both by modeling and encouraging safe and proper behavior in the midst of a quickly spreading virus. This is not to disregard those religious leaders and congregations who refused to adapt and protect their congregants, rather it shows the ways in which so many religious congregations are deeply invested and integrated into the social fabric of the United States. While people can implement practices to protect themselves from spreading the virus individually, pandemics are fought collectively. For many people, the collective fight against both influenza and coronavirus began in their local congregation. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues through the spread of the Delta variant, congregations will continue to be on the front lines shaping attitudes towards public safety.
Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Innovation Amidst and Beyond COVID-19 is an expansive, mixed-methods research project that seeks to thoroughly investigate the current changes and eventual outcomes of the pandemic for congregational life in the United States.
Andrew Gardner is a Visiting Faculty Associate in American Religious History and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. He is a researcher on the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Innovation Amidst and Beyond COVID-19 project.