Places of worship cancel, livestream and hold drive-thru services in wake of global pandemic

Churches across the country and the Bay Area are adjusting to the coronavirus outbreak – and the ban on mass gatherings. Some canceled Sunday services. Other places of worship are going online.

At Bay Church in Concord on Sunday, religious leadership was offering drive-through services so that people can stay in their own cars but still attend service. People can drive up to the church, be offered a prayer and then take off. Or, they can park and watch a livestream, similar to a drive-in movie. 

The church offered a similar drive-through option in 2017 on weekdays, but now it's being strongly recommended because of coronavirus fears and the need for social distancing. 

Other attendees can participate at home – by watching a live stream online.

Carol Watkins, who has attended the church for 20 years, said this move is hard. 

"I'm going to really miss all the people I sit with in church," she said. "We just have such a good time together and we really love each other. So it's going to be difficult in that regard. But it will be nice knowing that they will all be participating in worship."

Synagogues and mosques were following similar protocols.

At Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, Rabbi Mark Bloom told congregants he made the difficult decision to cancel Saturday services, weighing two Jewish tenents against each other. It's a mitzvah, or good deed, to pray in community, he said. But there is no higher good than saving a life, he said, prompting him to offer a brief service available on the temple website via livestream instead. He said he did not want the spread of the disease to harm even one person. 

Several churches, however, decided they will stay open for Sunday service, including the San Francisco Diocese church community. Churches in the diocese have done deep cleaning of the church and leadership advised anyone who feels sick to stay home. Still, behavioral changes have already been made. Numerous Catholic dioceses to suspend the serving of wine during Communion.

“Some faith communities already stream services or communicate with each other over social media,” said Jamie Aten, a psychologist who is executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. “Though there aren’t any perfect solutions and such discussions can be difficult to have, it’s better to have them now and not later.”

Across the country, archbishops were urging Catholics to stay home from Mass if they are sick; to practice good hygiene, including frequent hand washing; and to avoid hand-to-hand contact during moments in the church service when churchgoers traditionally shake hands with those near them in the pews.

Many other dioceses around the U.S. are taking similar steps - even in areas such as Pittsburgh where no cases of coronavirus have been confirmed. Among the many dioceses and archdioceses making the changes were those in Atlanta, Boston, Joliet, Illinois, San Antonio and Newark and Paterson, New Jersey.

In Chicago, the Catholic archdiocese not only suspended the serving of Communion wine from a chalice, it also ordered priests, deacons and other personnel to wash their hands before Mass and use an alcohol based anti-bacterial solution before and after distributing Communion.

“Assure the faithful that if they are sick or are experiencing symptoms of sickness, they are not obliged to attend Mass, and even that out of charity they ought not to attend,” the archdiocese told its priests.

Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was among the bishops ordering that the Communion wafer be placed in the recipient’s hand, not on the tongue, for the time being.

“How we receive, while very personal to the individual communicant, is not crucial,” Wester wrote on the diocese website. “Receiving Communion in the hand is every bit as respectful as receiving on the tongue.”

The Associated Press and KTUV's Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.