Pandemic Strategies (Including COVID-19) Strategies for Gathering Congregations in an Ongoing Pandemic

Worship service outdoors with participants masked, distanced and under sun umbrellas

The strategies and tips we offer are based on the advice of UU public health experts as well as effective practices that some of our congregations have been using. None of these strategies are meant to stand alone. Combined, they offer layers of precaution that increase safety and inclusion for all members of a community.

Each congregation decides for itself how it will gather given the conditions in its community, and decisions will change as the virus surges and dissipates. The UUA supports congregations that make the decision to suspend all in-person gatherings, as well as those that decide to combine in-person and online engagement. The strategies below are meant for times when the congregational leadership discerns—based on your community, your building, and your people—that some in-person meetings, programs, and worship can be adequately safe.

Strategy 1: Continue to Offer Meaningful Engagement Online

We are hearing from many congregations that online access to worship and Zoom-based committee meetings are here to stay. The UUA Multiplatform resources offer tips and emerging practices for online and in-person integration. Not only is this important for safety, it also makes our congregations/communities more accessible.

Remember, “multiplatform” doesn’t mean that every event needs to be both online and in-person. It just means that we continue to provide meaningful engagement for people who participate online or in-person. Some events can be online only, and some can be in-person only, and some will be both online and in-person. We will continue to update our Leader Library with resources on live-streaming, online meetings, and more.

In all of our decisions, it matters that we continue to ask how we support those who are most vulnerable within and beyond our congregations, including those at higher risk for severe disease. Congregational leaders should also be attentive to the impacts of multiplatform plans on ministers, staff, and volunteers, and to make space to meet the needs of individuals and families at higher risk. Our web resources offer multiple scenarios that allow religious professionals to participate from off site if they or people they live with are at higher risk.

Strategy 2: Promote Vaccination

As the pandemic plays out, it’s become clear in most UU congregations that Unitarian Universalists tend to be a highly-vaccinated population compared with their neighbors. Some congregations have created a degree of safety by requiring proof of vaccination for attendance at in-person events. Other congregations have conducted surveys, discovering that 98% to 100% of those eligible in their congregation have been fully vaccinated. Vaccination has been proven to dramatically reduce the risk of hospitalization and severe COVID cases. Public health officials emphasize that booster shots, which keep vaccinations current, are effective in fighting all known COVID-19 variants. Vaccines are the first, best line of defense against COVID-19. However, children under 5 are still not eligible for vaccines, and vaccines are not available or less effective for people who are immunocompromised. Promoting vaccination is aligned with our principles as an act of care for ourselves, and to protect those who are most vulnerable in our community.

Note that vaccination reduces but does not fully prevent the risk of transmitting of COVID-19, especially the omicron variant, as the number of "breakthrough" cases rises. Because vaccinated individuals can become infected and spread COVID-19, it continues to be important to require well-fitted masks for in-person attendance at worship and programs of the congregation. (See Strategy #3, below.)

Strategy 3: Require Masking for Attendance

Congregations that maintain a culture of indoor masking, with well-fitted quality masks, reduce the risk of transmission significantly. Masking in crowds outdoors is also advisable. The outdoor ventilation decreases but does not eliminate the risk of transmission. UUA resources on masking offer tools and strategies for ensuring masking as well as consent to unmask in certain settings.

Strategy 4: Employ Rapid-Testing for Worship Leaders and Singers

Because wearing a mask can get in the way of clear sound and facial expression while leading elements of worship, congregations have found some safer ways to allow for unmasked preaching, singing and public speaking indoors. Distance between speakers and congregation helps, as does offering an antigen rapid test for worship and program leaders who need to speak or sing with their masks off.

Singing transmits approximately ten times more volume of aerosols than speaking does—therefore congregations and music professionals are approaching singing with great care. Our LeaderLab page on congregational singing during COVID offers emerging practices and precautions from experts on aerosol transmission of viruses along with a link to guidance from the Association for UU Music Ministries.

Strategy 5: Invest in Ventilation

Many of our congregations took the time during in-person closure to evaluate their HVAC systems and the airflow in the building. Because COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through the air, it is essential to improve air quality and circulation to make indoor gatherings safer. Poorly-ventilated spaces can only safely be occupied by small numbers of people for short times, even with mask wearing.

Some congregations’ homemade fan and filter boxes or open windows have increased airflow and filtration without high cost. Of course, meeting outdoors when possible continues to be the best strategy for ensuring high-quality ventilation. Note that ventilation improvements help make our spaces more hospitable to people with allergies and prevent the transmission of other airborne infections besides COVID. Ventilation can help us all stay healthier in the long-term.

Strategy 6: Allow Space Between People

Many congregations have reduced the number of people they can safely fit into their space for particular events given their own vaccination policies, ventilation, and event duration. Because COVID-19 is spread via airborne particles which can linger in the air, there is not a set distance between people that is completely safe. However, creating distance between well-masked people provides another layer of safety.

Strategy 7: Carefully Consider Food and Drinks

Congregations that hold indoor events with food or drinks, including post-worship social hour, need to take special care to allow for ventilation and additional distancing while masks are removed to drink or eat. Putting a mask back on between bites and sips can help. It is prudent to consider the infection rate in your community, among unvaccinated people and among vaccinated people, before offering food or drinks indoors. Serving and consuming food outdoors reduces the risk of transmission. Time matters too: The longer the duration of mutually-unmasked eating during an indoor event, the higher the risk of transmission. The CDC has shared that as little as 15 minutes total exposure to COVID-infected respiratory droplets over the course of 24 hours can infect a person… and their study took place before the highly infectious Delta and Omicron variants emerged.

As the pandemic continues, we will continue to face uncertainty. The best we can do at any given time is to lean in to our values as well as draw on the gifts and wisdom of our own people.

We encourage congregational leaders to move with care and humility, and a willingness to reverse course if things aren’t working, or as the situation with the virus changes. In this difficult and extraordinary time, we invite you to engage with us in ongoing creativity as we all minister to one another and the world.

Know that, whatever comes, we as your UUA staff are your partners. We will be here to help you think through tough situations and find a way forward. We will help connect you with others so we can all learn together. We will be there working alongside you for love, care, spiritual connection, and justice in your communities and beyond. Find your congregation's regional staff for direct support.

Additional Resources

Below you will find our curated library of additional resources for congregational pandemic-related resources.