- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Houses of worship across the country are encouraging celebrants to bump elbows instead of shake hands, altering Communion practices and recalling missionaries from overseas amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

Roman Catholic dioceses from Alabama to Pittsburgh have announced a temporary end to parishioners taking Eucharistic wine in a communal cup.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has announced that it is discouraging international travelers from attending a general conference in April in Salt Lake City for fear of the respiratory illness, known officially as COVID-19.

And the United Methodist Church, invoking founder John Wesley’s writings on physical health, has encouraged followers to “stay calm” … and stay home if feeling unwell.

“Feel free to bump elbows or bow to fellow congregants during passing of the peace instead of hugging or shaking hands,” reads a bulletin insert from the United Church of Christ.

The various responses by congregations are intended to work in concert with hygienic practices employed during flu season, including frequent hand washing, covering the mouth to cough and sneeze, and avoiding unnecessary human-to-human contact.

But the commonsense precautions of separation and isolation add a curious, if not dissonant, element to religious services intended to draw people together.

Nationally, more than 100 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and nine have died of it. Globally, nearly 93,000 people have contracted the disease, and more than 3,100 have died.

Concerns about COVID-19 are spreading faster than the disease itself here and abroad. A spokesman for Pope Francis — who was videotaped coughing during a Lenten service over the weekend — had to issue a statement saying the pontiff only had a common cold, not the coronavirus. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told an Italian newspaper that the cold was “running its course, without symptoms linked to other pathologies.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to release special instructions for religious practices, as it did in 2009 to combat the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. But the health agency has encouraged no travel to Italy, a site for Christian pilgrims during Lent.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Congregation Beth Am canceled a planned trip of a few dozen travelers to Israel and Greece. Another synagogue in Seattle has encouraged an “elbow bump” instead of a hug or kiss between congregants.

In the Middle East, two months before Ramadan, Iran has canceled Friday prayers in 23 cities after more than 1,000 Iranians tested positive for coronavirus-like symptoms. Just days ago, Saudi Arabia, which announced its first coronavirus case on Monday, suspended entry for persons making certain pilgrimages to the holy site in Mecca.

In announcing it was closing several temples around the world from Hong Kong to Japan, the Mormon church issued a statement saying it was “taking steps to reduce the number of missionaries in areas where the virus is of particular concern.”

In a similar vein, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board said it has “convened a task force” to assess COVID-19’s impact on volunteer mission trips.

Not every religious organization in the U.S. is taking extra steps to stem the coronavirus. A spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls in eastern South Dakota, which has no reported coronavirus incidents, told The Washington Times it had not encouraged priests to adopt any special procedures beyond normal flu season precautions.

The same goes for other dioceses, which exercise local autonomy over such decisions.

“The [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] does not have oversight of bishops or dioceses, so there is no authority to issue nationwide directives on questions, for example, of whether distribution of Holy Communion from the chalice should be stopped or if even public celebration of Mass should be temporarily suspended,” conference spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi said in an email.

But in locations with reported COVID-19 infections, the response has been elevated. The Archdiocese of Boston announced it would suspend communal wine sipping during Communion, and regularly drain and clean all water fonts. And a bishop in California has exempted the sick from attending Sunday Mass until further notice.

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