Is it time for singing to return to worship? It could be…

Dr. Curt Passafume addresses questions about singing in church.

With covid-19 vaccination rates having increased (but now somewhat plateauing), covid case and hospitalization rates declining and the CDC having issued revised mask guidance this past week many are beginning to ask the question…”when can we return to singing in our worship services?” Given our current state it was time to revisit this topic and see if we have a pathway forward.

What has not changed. The following facts remain unchanged since the beginning of the pandemic and remain facts today.

    1. Singing remains a higher risk activity in comparison to regular talking due to the increased aerosolization of viral particles from folks that are carriers or actively infected.
    2. Facial coverings when chosen well and worn appropriately remain one of our best tools to continue to keep the infection rates on the decline. I refer you back to our earlier guidance on what constitutes an appropriate face covering and how it should be effectively worn.
    3. The adherence to effective public health measures is not universally observed and many individuals remain non-compliant with safety measures along with a high degree of covid-19 vaccine hesitancy.
    4. Distancing remains a strategy to minimize the risk of viral transmission between individuals or from groups to individuals.
    5. Inside activities even with efficient air circulation equipment remains a higher risk than equivalent activities that are held outdoors.

What has changed. The following information is a summary of what circumstances have changed since the beginning of the pandemic.

    1. We have developed effective treatment options for those who become infected with Covid-19.
    2. We have developed safe and effective vaccines to protect us and each other from Covid-19.
    3. We have fine-tuned ways to conduct our worship services in meaningful ways both virtually and for some congregations….in-person.
    4. The CDC issued new, while somewhat confusing guidance on relaxation of some masking guidelines for people who have been fully vaccinated against covid-19.

Where does that leave us? We believe the science is now showing us there may be a viable pathway to introduce once again singing into our worship activities. However, that pathway must still contain a high degree of adherence to accepted public health safety measures, individual and group accountability and congregational decision making and communication that is clear, consistent and aligns with the role we all must play as a community of faith in these times of pandemic. What could this look like….here are some of what we believe to be essential elements of a pathway for a congregation, its’ members and leaders and for all of us as accountable followers of Christ and as Lutherans in the age of pandemic.

Vaccines-a fully vaccinated individual is now medically in a safer position than a non-vaccinated individual. They are protected from viral transmission from others and to others and will have much less risk from covid-19 infections. We must remember that the vaccination status of any individual remains a matter of health privacy that is protected under federal and state law. Information about whether a person has been vaccinated can be volunteered but cannot be demanded except is rare circumstances. Vaccinated individuals and by extension a group of vaccinated individuals present less risk to others and to themselves, even when engaged in the activity of singing in comparison to similar persons or groups that have not been vaccinated. However, that same person or group will maintain that higher safety profile only when the vaccination is combined with an effectively used facial covering and recognized safety distancing. What that means is that a church choir that is made up of individuals who have been fully vaccinated against covid-19, comply with effective facial covering guidelines, and have safety distancing in place, between themselves and the group they are singing to or for can conduct singing activities that are much safer than they would have been in the early days of the pandemic. Note…that does not mean the activity is risk free. It is not. Also note that there will be challenges in determining the vaccination status of any individual member of a choir and congregation leaders will need to discuss how to approach this matter and then effectively communicate that decision to not just choir members but to the congregation as a whole.

Facial coverings-while we will not reiterate all the guidance that currently has been published within medical literature on this issue, I will reinforce a few key points.

    1. The guidance on types and uses of facial covering remains clear.
    2. That guidance reinforces that there are properly constructed facial coverings. That guidance also indicates that facial shields without masks, gaiters, scarves, bandanas, and the like are not effective facial coverings. That guidance also indicates that the coverings must always cover the mouth AND the nose, fit snugly around the sides, and should extend well below the chin line.
    3. If a congregation makes the decision to pursue a pathway for choral singing, then it would be advisable to also review proper facial covering guidelines and assure the highest degree of compliance and accountability.
    4. Specialized facial coverings have been designed for singers (singing masks) since the beginning of the pandemic. We remind that these do not provide any additional protection than other appropriate facial coverings, but they do provide the singer with more appropriate use of their instrument while at the same time providing protection for themselves and others.
    5. The most recent CDC guidance has clearly indicated that even for those who have been fully vaccinated against covid-19 that singers and chorus members who are singing indoors should remain masked.

Safety distancing-while the specific guidance on what constitutes the safest distance to be applied from a public health standpoint has been somewhat inconsistent during the pandemic, there is one point that remains completely consistent. Applying a recommended safe distance of six (6) feet remains the most consistent guidance to date and that distance must be increased when singers are in proximity to others. In the case where a fully vaccinated choir assembles for rehearsal, performance or worship the safety distancing guidelines should be consistently applied for the optimal reduction of risk.

Summary-we believe there is a viable pathway back to singing that is based on accepted medical science and current public health guidelines. Each congregation will need to assess their ability to provide an environment that protects both the singers and the members. Determining vaccination status will remain a challenging issue that will need clear decision making and communication. If a congregation decides to re-introduce choral singing, then it would be advisable to also prepare for the inevitable inquiry about congregational singing that will naturally follow. We will remain as always in an advisory capacity and will seek to gain more detailed answers for questions that will naturally arise.