COVID Protocols at First Church

We are currently worshipping in hybrid format, with some congregants in person and others online, and we expect to continue doing so for the forseeable future.

As the pandemic stretches into a long tail, we remain committed to prioritizing outdoor gatherings when possible and sensible. We will consider less-risky options before choosing riskier options. We are aiming for outdoors over indoors, distanced over crowded, masked over unmasked, and short over long. We also encourage people to utilize rapid tests when possible before attending in-person events, and to commit to staying home with any symptoms of illness.

As of 3/12/2023, our indoor gatherings are mask-optional, although we strongly recommend well-fitting N-95 or equivalent masks for any people with compromised immune systems, upcoming travel or medical appointments, or any other reason to be cautious. We made the decision to go to mask-optional for a number of reasons which you can read in the updated mask policy here.

Below you will see our former metric for decision-making about indoor worship and other COVID protocols. However, as more and more people self-diagnosed with rapid tests at home, we began to realize that those numbers of community spread were likely undercounting by a large margin, and it began to feel irresponsible even to share those numbers.

Instead, as of 12/01/2022, we are watching wastewater numbers, since everyone (whether they go to the doctor or not) is contributing to that stream! We use the CalSuWers dashboard for numbers.

Rather than basing our decisions on numbers, however, we are watching trends. As of 3/12/2023, case loads have leveled off in Contra Costa County but are rising sharply in San Francisco and Alameda Counties. We encourage those with compromised immune systems to worship online or to wear well-fitting N95 or comparable masks in person. Leaders in the sanctuary will continue to take rapid tests before services.

For reference: Metrics prior to December 1, 2022

Decisions about worshipping indoors in our sanctuary have been complicated! We know that some of our members wish we would remain in person through any COVID surges, while others wish we would be more cautious about allowing indoor gatherings.

We were using the seven-day average of new COVID cases in each of our four Local Health Jurisdictions (LHJs) where members live and work: the City of Berkeley, plus Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco Counties. The current numbers as of November 27 are below, and the following chart details what activities we planned to offer at each level of community spread.

Current Community Spread (updated 11/27/2022)

Berkeley: 13.2 cases per 100,000

Alameda County: 11.9 cases per 100,000

San Francisco County: 11.4 cases per 100,000

Contra Costa County: 10.9 cases per 100,000

Church Activity Guidelines

Case Numbers (per 100,000 residents)Church Activities
Above 100 in any of the four LHJsOnline-only for large gatherings, no large in-person gatherings of any kind (indoor or outdoor). Smaller outdoor or indoor gatherings are allowed if participants are masked and distanced. Participants will be encouraged to utilize rapid tests prior to attending, and indoor gatherings or outdoor gatherings without full masking will require rapid testing.
Between 50-100 in any, presuming all are less than 100Outdoor activities, masked and incorporating social distancing will be allowed.
In light of changing severity of current (1/31/22) dominant variant, indoor worship may take place when all four LHJs are below 100 cases per 100,000. Participants will be required to wear N-95 or equivalent masks.
Fully vaccinated leaders who have tested negative immediately prior on a rapid COVID antigen test may remove masks to speak but must maintain at least 15 feet distance when doing so. No food and drink will be served.
Choral singing remains masked and distanced and the use of rapid tests is still required.
Between 20-50 in any, presuming all are less than 50Outdoor activities, masked, without enforcing 6-foot distancing. Food and drink may be served but only where people can maintain more than 6-foot distances while eating. In the case of entirely outdoor events such as camp or hiking, masks may be removed as long as distances of at least six feet can be maintained. Choral singing remains masked and distanced, and the use of rapid tests among choir members is encouraged but not required.
Indoor worship continues with the use of N-95 masks or equivalent. Worship leaders who utilize rapid testing may keep masks off during services to facilitating microphone use.
Between 10-20 in any, presuming all are less than 20Outdoor activities in large gatherings may become mask-optional. Food and drink may be served even when distancing is not possible. Masked choral music (with all members vaccinated) without six-foot distancing becomes possible.
Worship indoors remains masked but distancing is no longer required. Worship leaders who take masks off continue to utilize rapid testing prior to services.
Between 5-10 in any, presuming all are less than 10Outdoor activities are presumed to be mask-optional unless designated otherwise.
Indoor activities will continue to request masking but worshipers may be allowed to remove masks in the balcony if distance may be maintained from others. Vaccinated worship leaders may keep masks off throughout services and may do so without utilizing rapid tests unless indicated by exposure.
All units lower than 5Indoor and outdoor activities may become mask-optional, although we may set certain events as mask-required if requested or warranted.
All units lower than 1We throw a big party!

Sources for COVID numbers:

City of Berkeley COVID-19 Dashboard

California State COVID-19 Data by County

Frequently Asked Questions

Are these numbers still meaningful when so many people are rapid-testing and not reporting their cases of COVID to authorities? Isn’t this an undercount?

We’re concerned about this too! These reports of community spread are likely undercounting the actual spread now, since most people are not hospitalized or needing medical attention, so most cases probably go un-reported. (You can help this by reporting your positive tests to your doctor’s office if you get COVID!)

When do we check the numbers?

We check the numbers at least once a week. You’ll see updated numbers above.

If numbers fall, does that mean in person worship will start right away? And if they rise, will worship stop right away?

As of October 10, 2021, worship has restarted in person. But in general, we’re looking for sustained levels of community spread. Once we reached the correct levels, it took us a couple of weeks to “react” with the main service on Sundays. So we began notifying people that indoor worship would resume, giving three weeks notice. With smaller gatherings or outdoor gatherings, we can be more nimble, reacting and changing things week-of. We are hoping we don’t need to go back to fully online, but if we do, we will look for two weeks in a row of numbers in a too-high category.

Why not just offer indoor services regardless and let people choose if they’re comfortable?

We were waiting for COVID numbers to make that choice less risky. We are leaders in our wider community, and we make sacrifices to keep our community safer.

Will online worship still be available while indoor services happen?

Yes! We were livestreaming our service before the pandemic and we will continue to livestream. Our goal is to provide online services that are as intimate and connection-focused as possible, whether or not some of us are in person. Now that some of us are in person, we are continuing to connect with livestream participants.

Why not use the City of Berkeley numbers? Why look at all four Local Health Jurisdictions?

Some of us come from outside of Berkeley, and some of us work outside of Berkeley. Because we are interacting with people across all of these areas regularly, we want to be ready to react appropriately if numbers rise in any of our local areas. Plus, because of inequality, Berkeley numbers tend to be lower than our neighbors, so we are erring on the side of caution.

Why look at whole-community numbers instead of only vaccinated numbers? Aren’t most of us vaccinated?

Yes, most members of First Church are vaccinated. But because new variants of COVID-19 can infect vaccinated people, and because the efficacy of vaccination wanes over time, and because some of us (especially children) aren’t yet able to be vaccinated, we opted for the more conservative choice to look at general community spread instead of only spread among vaccinated people.

Aren’t those numbers delayed? What about up-to-the-minute numbers?

The most reliable numbers we have are the seven-day averages, and it takes each LHJ a few days to calculate and release those, so yes, we’re looking at numbers from about a week ago. We think this is appropriate in a season when numbers are falling. It’s extra-cautious. If numbers begin to rise again we may need to re-think our procedure to make sure we’re being safe!

Why aren’t we just following state guidelines on this?

The State of California ended its color-coded tier guidelines in June 2021 and has not provided additional information about what activities are safe at what level of community spread. While we would be legally allowed to have full-capacity indoor services at any level of COVID spread right now, we want to make sure we’re not putting people at unreasonable risk.

When I run the numbers, I don’t get the same ones! What gives?

That may be because the state of California uses an adjustment factor to correct for counties and local health jurisdictions that have higher rates of testing, so places with low test rates don’t look like they are doing better than they actually are. All four of our LHJs are in California’s high-testing tier and so use a multiplier of 0.85 to arrive at the comparison numbers. Berkeley and Alameda County report their adjusted numbers directly; Contra Costa reports raw numbers, so we use the adjustment factor to make sure we are comparing apples to apples.

What precautions will we take to make events as low-risk as we can?

Masks will be welcome at any level of COVID spread and required as outlined in the chart above. Hand sanitizer and masks (both reusable and disposable) will be available at all events. We will utilize our ventilation system to maintain a rapid level of air turnover in any event that takes place indoors. We will communicate any potential exposure broadly.

Who should I talk to if I have questions or concerns about this?

You can be in touch with any member of staff or with the Church Council with questions or concerns. This document was first drafted by Rev. Kelly so if you want to ask about how it was formulated, you should start with her. But you are welcome to be in touch with Rev. Molly, other members of staff, or anybody on Council if you prefer!