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UUA Guidance on Gathering In-Person When COVID-19 Subsides

Updated February 8, 2021

Because of the re-opening of some in-person spaces around us, and because of our strong desire to connect once again in the sacred spaces of our congregational buildings, many congregational leaders have begun asking the UUA for guidance in decision-making about when and how to resume in-person programs and services.

As your UUA leaders, who always serve in partnership with your own congregational leadership, we have articulated the following principles for thinking about when and how to go back. They are grounded in Unitarian Universalism’s deep values, as our president Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray articulates in her video on COVID-19, Our Values, and Plans for Regathering.

  • Our abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable, inside and outside our congregation.

  • Accessibility and inclusion for all of our members and friends to participate in our congregation, regardless of health status, health vulnerability, or ability.

  • Recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves. Our congregational decisions can impact other congregations and the wider community.

  • Ethical treatment and expectations for our leaders and staff, minimizing the risks to their own health and well-being.

  • Our affirmation that good science, coupled with our UU values, must be the basis upon which we make decisions about in-person gathering.

  • Commitment to our mission, community, and theology more than ever, mindful of the spiritual demands of this transition.

  • Our deep hope that we as a country, and as a world, will not return to “normal” when the pandemic is over. We seek to live into “a new normal” of more justice, more love, more equity, more sustainability, and more peace.

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.

UUA Recommendations

  • In the midst of uncertainty, the UUA stands by our spring 2020 recommendation that congregations plan for ongoing virtual gathering and operations. This applies to worship, events, rites of passage, and more.
  • We strongly discourage smaller in-person gatherings (such as meetings or one-to-one pastoral care) in indoor spaces, even with masks. Even the best masks are not 100% effective in preventing the spread of the virus from person to person. Our values of safety and inclusion call on us to minimize risk. We do not always know who might be most vulnerable to being harmed, or killed, by this virus. And we do not want to place the burden of educating or correcting us on the people who are most vulnerable.
  • Our highest values and commitments call us to refrain from in-person gathering until the COVID-19 pandemic is controlled. We invite you to think of your congregation as primarily digitally-connected, with small in-person nodes that can grow as the pandemic subsides. Learn more about how you can embrace the opportunities presented by this time of virtual gathering.
  • Our recommendations for congregations are indeed more stringent than schools and businesses that surround you, for the following reasons:
    • As a community that values inclusion and collective care, we don’t want to create in-person situations that inadvertently exclude those at higher risk, or create situations that force those at higher risk to publicly identify themselves. Our decision-making must center the needs of the most vulnerable.
    • The membership of most UU congregations is an older, more vulnerable population than the general public.
    • We do not want congregational staff and ministers to be put at risk on the job.
    • A normally-operating congregation presents too many opportunities to spread a highly contagious respiratory virus like COVID-19.
  • In case of emergency: In alignment with our UU values, the UUA supports opening congregational buildings to protect lives in emergency situations that call us to protect life, such as natural disasters and violence in the streets. In such situations we urge congregations to take utmost care to minimize the possibility of the spread of COVID-19. Consult local health departments and our sources for accurate information for guidance on minimizing the spread of the virus in such situations.

How Can We Decide When to Resume In-Person Gathering?

We are guided by science and our deepest values, not politics, when we urge congregations to not resume full in-person operations until concrete public health criteria are met.

We offer this series of values-based and practical questions for congregational leaders to consider matters of authority, staff capacity, liability, and much more.

We encourage you to gather data from your local and county health departments as well as national repositories with detailed county data such as Covid Act Now and The New York Times. Consult our Sources for Accurate Data page for additional recommended sources.

Examples from Our Congregations

The UU Congregation in Reston, VA has created an excellent policy on when to consider regathering in person. They have chosen five key measurable criteria for their metro area (metrics) that they will use to determine when and how to resume in-person worship:

  • Daily New Cases: at or below 1 per 100,000 people per day in the area
  • Infection Rate: new infections in the area less than .88 per already-infected person
  • Test Positivity: testing in the area is widespread and 3% (or less) of the tests are positive
  • Tracers Hired: 90-100% of the number of tracers needed according to public health professionals are working in the area
  • ICU Headroom: area hospitals have less than 50% of available ICU beds in use by COVID patients

Your congregation’s leaders and/or its COVID-19 Task Force will need to decide which counties and cities’ data to take into account. Perhaps your members, staff, and visitors are from a single metropolitan area. Perhaps they come to you from three counties. The Reston congregation is looking at data for their own county and seven neighboring cities and counties.

Our UU congregation in Duluth, MN has developed a six-tier COVID-19 safety plan (PDF) based on local health indicators. Their work provides a second example of how a congregation might enact its own guidelines.

Dr. Kim Kilby and Dr. David Pratt, members of UU Society of Schenectady, NY, are active in public health leadership and COVID-19 response efforts in their professional roles as well as in the congregation. They contributed this piece, Unitarian Universalists Gathering in the Time of COVID, to their congregation's newsletter in January 2021.

The staff and board of The Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford, IL have created this draft policy for welcoming in-person participation and are seeking feedback from congregation members. It includes an FAQ and is explicit about how they will handle children's programming.

Considerations for Outdoor Gathering

We have created an additional resource in response to questions about gathering with two or more people outdoors on the congregation's property. Please review our June 19th, 2020 Guidance for Outdoor Gatherings During COVID-19.

Conclusion

As the pandemic continues to play out, we as Unitarian Universalists and we as UU congregations 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. 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, as your partners, working alongside you for health, love, spiritual connection, and justice in your communities and beyond. Find your congregation's regional staff for direct support.