To mask or not to mask? (This is NOT the only important question.)
Since March of 2020 – going on two and a half years now – this has been a major question; but interestingly, I find the current moment the hardest to manage from my position as a decision-maker on these matters for St. John’s.
Throughout this time, the vast majority of St. John’s parishioners have shown tremendous flexibility and willingness to adhere to various protocols we have followed, even if they personally would make a different choice. Most have been supportive when I’ve chosen to relax those protocols a bit, and when I’ve chosen to strengthen them again.
Throughout this time, most also have been cognizant of the fact that I’ve had to balance a lot of different factors in making a decision like this for a whole community, including factors such as:
local Covid transmission rates and the uncertainty that arises with each new variant;
vaccination rates and relative access to vaccines;
whether there is a risk of overwhelming local health care systems,
dramatically declining death rates and rates of serious illness due to Covid;
the value of being inclusive (of young and older people as well as healthier folks and the health-compromised);
the relatively older age of our parishioners
the value of protecting the more vulnerable;
the value of seeing the facial expressions of those who are leading worship;
the value of sharing the Cup together at Communion
All these factors together create a very complex environment for deciding what’s best.
Perhaps it is our reaction to the cumulative weariness we all feel around this pandemic, but in recent weeks I’ve noticed a lot less patience from some folks when it comes to Covid protocols.
I’ve heard some say they’re not coming to church til we drop “all this nonsense” about masks. I’ve heard others say they’re not coming because “it’s clear our parish doesn’t care about the vulnerable” because we aren’t currently mandating masks.
Some folks simply cannot understand why others don’t voluntarily wear a mask all the time because we still have 400 people dying from Covid in this country every day (a far higher rate than flu, for example, which killed approximately 16 people per day last year, or flu and pneumonia combined which killed about 146 people per day last year, according to the CDC.)
Others tell me they cannot understand why anyone feels they should wear a mask at this point at all because Covid is just not that deadly anymore (given vaccinations for all ages and all the treatments that are now available.)
Some tell me that Covid is so widespread, we’re simply going to have to learn to live with it (and accepting risk is part of living with it.)
Some say we’re all likely to get it at some point, and we shouldn’t just stop living our lives til the risk is 0% because it’ll never be 0%. Some keep asking me when we’re going to get back to sharing the common cup because they really miss it. So do I.
The fact is, there’s a degree of truth in all of these viewpoints, and there is no one choice around protocols that will satisfy everyone; and our collective weariness of the pandemic is making it hard to continue being patient and gracious toward others. Nevertheless, I want to ask you for exactly this: more patience and more grace. As I and others in leadership do our best to take into consideration a variety of important factors, being judged as either “nonsensical” or “uncaring” in the midst of this complexity is hurtful and unfair.
As I see it, there remains too much death from Covid to warrant doing nothing on the prevention end of things. (Fewer people die in car accidents every year but we still insist folks do simple things to prevent more deaths: wear a seatbelt, don’t drink and drive, don’t text and drive.)
On the other hand, even if everyone masks, this does not guarantee that you won’t get Covid. It’s just too contagious.
For those who are the most vulnerable, many are still avoiding crowds even when those crowds are masked. (Good choice.)
For those who are moderately vulnerable, many are double-masking (good choice) or avoiding crowds indoors where everyone is unmasked and in close contact for extended periods. (Another good choice.)
We’ve made outdoor services and livestreams available so that we can still worship with folks who don’t want to take the risk of in-person gatherings. Even if that’s not ideal for anyone, it’s better than nothing.
For those who are less personally vulnerable to Covid (or think you are, anyway), many still are willing to mask all the time. (Great! Thank you.)
Some are willing to mask while in larger groups indoors (like at worship) because that’s when the risk of transmission for this still quite deadly disease is at its highest, especially when folks are singing and propelling their breath out into the room! (Great! Thank you.)
Others of us land somewhere in between masking all the time, and not masking at all. That’s not unreasonable at this stage in the pandemic for many people.
For my part, having to make decisions on behalf of the whole parish, I honestly would like to see most folks wearing masks on Sunday mornings while our local community Covid levels remain in the “medium” to “high” category. (Right now we’re at a “medium” level.) I don’t think this is unreasonable when most of our parishioners are over 60 years of age, and it makes room for those with moderate health issues to feel more comfortable worshiping in person. I think that’s a wonderful gift to give them; and for most of us, masks are about as cumbersome as putting on a seatbelt. You may be old enough to remember how hard it was for everyone to adjust to that, too; but we did it, and it saves lives.
I check our local numbers weekly and I will let you know when those rates come down to “low.” Then, perhaps, we’ll relax the masking protocols again. Maybe then we’ll restore the common cup at Communion (and keep the spoon option available for those who want it.)
But “To mask or not to mask?” I really don’t think that’s the question. To me, there are other equally important questions: Can we respect and extend patience to one another in the midst of this very complex situation? Can we practice grace, even if we disagree? Our answer to these questions will determine whether we stick together as a community, practicing the unity to which Christ calls us – even as we disagree. We can do this, with God’s help. I am sure of it.
This comes with Love,