AUSTIN (KXAN) — Even before Austin Public Health began urging people to cancel events with more than 250 people, local churches began making changes and preparing to move gatherings online.
Many churches have reached out to encourage those who may be more likely to get a virus — such as the elderly and those with autoimmune disorders or preexisting conditions — to remain at home.
While all churches are different, elements of some church services can put people in close contact, including greeting times where people often shake hands. Health officials are recommending alternatives to handshakes, such as elbow bumps or bows, in addition to encouraging people to wash their hands often.
The Austin Diocese also released changes to how parishioners take the holy Eucharist, a step during a service called Communion in non-Catholic churches. People remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross by eating a wafer, piece of bread or a cracker — symbolizing Christ’s body — and drinking wine or grape juice — symbolizing Christ’s blood.
The Austin Diocese is having people receive a wafer in their hands (instead of directly in their mouths from a priest) and is suspending distribution of the wine, which usually involves people drinking from one chalice that is wiped clean between drinks.
Below is a list of churches with large gatherings who are taking precautions:
As of March 14, Mass and Reconciliation schedules are unchanged, and normal hours will be kept for those wishing to pray in the church. However, as a result of the Austin-Travis County ban on gatherings of 250 people or more, masses will be restricted to that number until May 1.
The Diocese said parishioners should count the number of people going inside.
The Diocese is encouraging parishes to develop ways to make Mass available through social media, and has resources on its website for broadcasts of Mass.
Austin Bishop Joe S. Vásquez wrote in a letter to the community that he expects requests for holy Communion at home to increase and that people will have to reach out to their parishes.
The Austin Stone, which meets in multiple locations throughout the city, is closing all locations for the next 2 weeks.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has temporarily canceled all church meetings worldwide. It said leaders should try to use technology to conduct any essential meetings and Bishops should work to make the sacraments available to members at least once a month. It encouraged its members to “care for one another” in this time.
Celebration Church is still holding services March 14 and 15 at its Austin and Georgetown campuses, but it is shortening them to an hour so it can clean between services. Its Dripping Springs campus will not meet because the school district has canceled school and venue rentals for the next two weeks, but it encouraged people to gather in small groups March 15 and March 22 for service watch parties.
It will sanitize children’s hands when they enter or exit the room and sanitize the rooms and toys after every service. It is also moving giving to online instead of passing buckets.
First United Methodist Church in Pflugerville will be closed on March 15.
UPDATE: Great Hills Baptist Church in northwest Austin has canceled services through the next three weeks. A previous version of this article indicated that services would not be canceled.
Lake Hills Church in west Travis County is streaming its 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. services online, including prayer and worship.
Lake Travis United Methodist Church in west Travis County is live-streaming services on its website on March 15. The church is also having drive through communion and prayer stations between 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Riverbend Church in northwest Travis County is combining its services into one and halting its chapel services over the next three Sundays, beginning March 15. It will have one 10 a.m. service in its Home for Hope, but no children’s ministry or child care.
Shoreline Church, which has campuses in north and south Travis County, is moving all its services online. It told KXAN Friday it was monitoring its congregation for sick people and encouraging people to not shake hands or hug. It also had provided them hand sanitizer.
The Well meets at Martin Middle School in east Austin and said due to Austin Independent School District’s protocol of closing campuses over break, it will have to suspend its gatherings.
It is providing a “Guided Gathering” on Sundays and reminded people they can also connect using its Lent Devotional and listening to previous sermons. It encouraged people, as they are comfortable, to join together in smaller groups.
The Nueces Mosque wrote to its members that it is coordinating with other mosques in the Austin area. On Friday it canceled its Jumu’ah prayers and encouraged people to pray Dhuhr at home.
The Buddhist Fo Guang Shan Xiang Yun Temple in north Austin canceled a number of classes, events and programs. It said it would still have its Chinese chanting service on Sundays, but would not provide lunch afterward. Its Water Repentance Service is still scheduled to be held April 5.
Praying throughout the city
Churches and individuals throughout the city are also taking time in their services to pray for those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Austin Disaster Relief Network is calling on churches throughout the city to pray together for an hour on Monday, March 16 from noon to 1 p.m.
“The goal for this one-hour prayer response is to give Austinites an opportunity to unite together in prayer for protection from further spread of the virus and healing for those who have it,” it wrote. “Additionally, we are asking Austinites to pray for our cities throughout the nation and world.”
ADRN will host a gathering at HOPE Prayer Room at 1122 East 52st St. as well as online, and has a guide for prayer online.