While some houses of worship in county resume indoor services, others wait

By Janene Scully

Noozhawk North County Editor

Some churches in Santa Barbara County quickly returned to indoor services, but others have kept status quo amid still-high COVID-19 cases and uncertainty that numbers will go down and stay down.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this month that California churches could resume indoor worship services, which had been banned under state public health orders. However, the court said the state could enforce its ban on singing and chanting, and limit attendance at 25% of capacity.

Just days after the ruling, many churches resumed in-person services inside, although with mask wearing, social distancing and temperature checking among measures in place.

Many other churches still have not returned indoors.

Santa Barbara’s Congregation B’nai B’rith has conducted services nearly entirely online, but leaders say they’re looking to return to in-person services at some point.

“We are plotting a path towards reopening for in-person worship with the hopes that we’ll be able to utilize our beautiful outdoor spaces starting mid-June,” Cantor Mark Childs said.

A decision to resume will consider state rules, involve social distancing and depend upon members’ feelings about what’s safe for the congregation, including the most vulnerable people.

“We are adamant that our policies not exclude anyone or put our clergy staff at risk,” Childs said.

Likewise, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Santa Barbara decided to continue drive-in worship at least through this Sunday. Churchgoers remain in their vehicles in the large parking lot while songs and prayers are amplified and played out across the radio.

The last time churches could offer indoor services, the rules changed back within a few days, leading to the decision this time to wait a few weeks to see what happens, office manager Alison Hansen said. 

The Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara also continues to stream its services live on Facebook.

“We will not be returning to in-person services until the community numbers go down. We are hoping with the vaccine rolling out that we may be able to do that in the fall,” said Erin Wilson, director of administration.

The Supreme Court ruling came weeks before many churches prepared to enter their holiest season, kicking it off with creative approaches for Ash Wednesday, including offering ashes-to-go while recipients sat in their vehicles or having members apply their own ashes handed out in biodegradable cups.

The latter approach occurred at St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church in Los Olivos, where services have remained outdoors. The Rev. Randall Day said he is eyeing a July 4 return to indoor services.

The church has followed more general rules rather than those carved out for churches, Day said, noting that the public health orders are temporary. 

“We’re really about enduring values, not what’s going to happen in the next five minutes. We can live through things that are difficult and painful,” Day said.

Although some churches have ignored the public health rules, Day said he believes the faith community should be more thoughtful and sensitive about potential impacts on the broader community.

“It’s just political and cultural. It has nothing to do with good science and being thoughtful about how the church is part of the public,” Day said.

Parishes that fall under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles have taken different approaches, with some returning indoors and others staying outside. Either way, churchgoers should check parish websites or social media to see whether reservations are required. 

St. Louis de Montfort Catholic Church in Orcutt and St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Santa Maria returned to indoor Mass within hours of the ruling. 

La Purisima Concepcion Catholic Church in Lompoc has continued outdoor Mass, but it does hold an indoor daily Mass, which typically has lower attendance. 

Santa Barbara and Goleta parishes weren’t so quick to return indoors, as the St. BarbaraOur Lady of Sorrows and St. Raphael’s parishes continued outdoor Masses.

Old Mission Santa Ines in Solvang has chosen a hybrid option, with indoor and outdoor Masses planned. Reservations are required for either option by calling 805-688-4815 because of limited seating.

Old Mission isn’t alone in offering options. Santa Maria Foursquare Church and First Christian Church returned to indoor services but have kept outdoor and online options available. Santa Maria’s First Christian Church also has kept a drive-in option to meet its members’ wishes. 

“I feel like we will run all the way through the summer with this,” Lead Pastor Jim Larrabee said. “The outdoor is wildly successful. People who come outdoors are actually enjoying it, and here on the Central Coast, the weather is perfect for it.”

He said they plan to add a few more indoor services as people feel more comfortable about being in the sanctuary.

“We try to meet people where they are,” Larrabee said, adding that preaching outside can be challenging as vehicles pass by on busy streets, and a car alarm went off recently.

While many churches entered COVID-19 with video and livestream experience, others had to scramble to adapt, with one pastor enrolling in a webinar to improve his skills.

It remains to be seen what changes will linger.

“COVID changed church, it really did,” Larrabee said, adding those changes have been both good and challenging.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue contributed to this report.