Keeping Communities Safe During Religious Gatherings

April 9, 2020 - (7 min read)

As many Americans prepare for Easter, Ramadan and Passover holidays, local leaders are continuing to deal with the impact of Coronavirus. As the number of cases in the United States continues to climb, many elected officials and public health experts are working with faith leaders to help stop the spread of coronavirus in their community. Intergenerational faith-based communities play an important role in sharing information, providing social connections, supporting vulnerable populations, and helping to mitigate the impact of the virus. There are several ways that public health officials, local elected officials, and faith leaders can work together to keep residents safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Prioritize Public Health 

The CDC has issued guidance outlining important steps clergy and lay leaders can take to help in the fight against coronavirus. The recommendations are organized according to the amount of local spread in the community and encourage faith-based communities to adhere to social distancing recommendations. Religious congregations and schools have developed creative ways to practice their faith while adhering to these principles. For many religious lifecycle rituals, serious adjustments may be necessary and health departments can partner with clergy and faith leaders to balance religious values with health recommendations. Some tips include: 

  • As appropriate, drive-in religious services that allow for shared experience while adhering to social distancing. 
  • Where appropriate, using technology, including video conferencing, text donations, and conference calls for at-home participation in religious services, lifecycle ceremonies and other community events. 
  • Develop “to-go” kits and ceremonial meal guides to support replacements for communal meals and allow for the safe practice of religious traditions in smaller groups practicing social/physical distancing.
  • Driveby donation drop off systems, and monetary based funds to support more individualized needs.

Additionally, many faith-based organizations and institutions are taking a leadership role in promoting public health, including social distancing, frequent hand washing, avoiding close contact, wearing masks, and increasing cleaning in their facilities for staff who must remain on-site for programming that serves vulnerable communities. 

Understand Local Gathering Restrictions in Your Area 

Almost every state has some restrictions on movement ranging from suggestions on how to limit trips, to requiring residents to shelter in place except for specific movements. Navigating this regulatory environment can be tricky for faith leaders seeking to provide a needed sense of hope and community to their membership. In some states, religious organizations are not mentioned as either permitted or prohibited. In others, religious gatherings are specifically exempted from large gathering prohibitions, while they are prohibited in others. Local leaders must communicate to their local faith leaders of all religions and denominations the restrictions or required modifications, as well as the potential risks to their members if large or small gatherings occur in their communities. There are ways for local elected to help get the word out about the impact of coronavirus on the ability to host gatherings, including: 

  • Host a webinar or conference call specifically for faith leaders featuring public health experts in multiple languages. Enlist the counsel of leaders from multiple faiths to ensure information is equally available to all communities.  
  • Feature information on your local government website and social media accounts about whether faith gatherings are prohibited or any mandatory or suggested modifications to promote social distancing. 
  •  Provide information to 311 operators about the impact of state and local executive orders on faith gatherings. 

Collaborate to Stop the Spread 

Since March 23rd, the number of stay at home orders at the state level has more than doubled. The CDC advises that community and faithbased organizations work to stay up to date on the latest guidance regarding the coronavirus. Accordingly, it is imperative that local leaders keep lines of communication open with their local religious organizations and communities. Extra communications should be coordinated with religious communities with community members who may be more likely to face religious, racial or other discrimination, in order to best understand their needs. Additionally, religious organizations and faith-based communities can be a valuable resource to provide reassurance, help flatten the curve and stop the spread. Local leaders can help disseminate information and enlist the help of the religious congregations and schools to fight coronavirus by: 

  • Dedicating a liaison within City Hall to work with clergy and lay leaders in their efforts to serve vulnerable populations and stop the spread. 
  • Hosting regular conference calls to share the latest information. 
  • Providing shareable content to faith leaders that mirrors the latest guidance from public health officials. 

Member Highlight 

“This is why the coronavirus is frightening. It is frightening because it forces us to look at our own mortality. But if we have a relationship with God, we have no reason to be frightened. There is a lot written in the Scriptures about pestilence and our response to it. The word pestilence is often translated as plague or disaster. God is calling us to God’s self. We planned, the enemy plans but God is the best of planners. God allows calamities in our lives to bring the human family to Salvation. And When I say salvation, I mean preservation, deliverance from harm, ruined or lost. 

 Elected officials, faith-base coalitions and communities should speak words of encouragement to one another. They should give sound advice. Give accurate information. Be the models for our citizens. Lead in the most excellent way.  Create environments of were Hope exist. Show love and compassion for one another. We should all look out for those who are the less fortunate or the least among us. 

 The other way to mitigate the coronavirus is to study the methods that other societies, nations, countries and regions used to curb the devastation and fatalities and implement them. At all costs take your precautions and protect yourselves, family, communities, nation and this world.” 

Dr. Estella Shabazz, Mayor Pro Tem & Alderwoman (5th District) for the City of Savannah, Ga.  

Stay Connected, Stay Safe 

Local leaders are under considerable pressure to navigate unchartered waters during the coronavirus pandemic. Faith-based communities can provide an important outlet to disseminate informationprovide reassurance, serve vulnerable populations, and promote social cohesion during a time of considerable difficulty. Additionally, local leaders can help to direct faith leaders to local health departments, and other important resources like economic relief. It is important to keep clear lines of communication open to help ensure that local elected officials and faith leaders are working together to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep their neighbors safe during this time of increased uncertainty. 

Additional Resources 

About the Authors:

Kitty DanaKitty Hsu Dana is the Program Director for Health & Wellness at the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. 



SR Stacy Richardson is the Program Director for Urban Innovation at the National League of Cities.