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How Some Churches Are Trying To Prevent Spread Of Coronavirus Among Congregants

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As more cases of coronavirus are confirmed in the U.S., some clergy are taking steps to prevent its spread at church. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles this week told its congregations to stop offering communion wine. Religious leaders in Chicago, Seattle, Houston and elsewhere have taken similar precautions in houses of worship. From St. Louis Public Radio, Shahla Farzan reports on how congregations are trying to preserve religious practices while also avoiding illness.

SHAHLA FARZAN, BYLINE: A small group of worshippers gathers for Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis just as the sun is peeking over the horizon.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Give us this day our daily bread...

FARZAN: When it comes time to exchange the sign of peace, instead of shaking hands, congregants smile and wave to each other. It's a simple change this congregation has made to reduce the chances of spreading the coronavirus. Worshipper Judy Meinert says, in church, they look out for each other.

JUDY MEINERT: And I thought, you know what? I care about these people too much. I definitely don't want to share anything that could make them sick.

FARZAN: This congregation is taking coronavirus very seriously, says Father Nicholas Smith. He says he tries to model good hygiene practices for his flock.

NICHOLAS SMITH: So if I ever do have to cough, you know, I'm going into my elbow or something. That might remind people that's what we should be doing.

FARZAN: Before offering communion wafers to his congregants, Smith washes his hands and squirts a glob of sanitizer into his palm. Churches are reconsidering a variety of practices due to the coronavirus. The Archdiocese of St. Louis is recommending sanitizing the baptismal font and other commonly touched objects more frequently. And it's also asking clergy to consider not using the shared communion cup. Hilary Babcock, an infectious disease specialist at Washington University, says that's a good idea.

HILARY BABCOCK: I advocate for people not sharing food, utensils, glasses and cups. So in general, I think that's higher risk than if there is a way to allow people to have individual cups or individual containers that they are using and either disposing of or having cleaned afterwards.

FARZAN: Babcock says, like the flu, coronavirus spreads through coughing or sneezing or if people's hands become contaminated and then they shake hands with others. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has suggested pastors stop the practice of intinction, or dipping the communion bread or wafer in the wine. John Weit is the church's executive for worship.

JOHN WEIT: That's probably the least hygienic way because our hands are the - often the dirtiest parts or that carry disease, so that - not recommending that practice.

FARZAN: He says congregants can choose not to take the wine at all if they feel uncomfortable. And Weit says no matter what, he doesn't want people to stop worshipping.

WEIT: We want to continue to be the gathered body of Christ whenever possible so that there are safeguards and practices that we can adapt as needed but that still hold true to our faith.

FARZAN: All of this matters because shared meals, baptisms, anointing with oil and human contact are central to Christianity, says Bishop Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.

WAYNE SMITH: It really is bittersweet not to be able to engage in those things to the fullest extent available to us. But I think that we must do that nonetheless.

FARZAN: Smith points out congregations have had to do this before. During the 1918 flu pandemic, the mayor of St. Louis closed all of the churches in the city for at least several months. They're hoping it won't come to that this time.

For NPR News, I'm Shahla Farzan in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.