As Oregon churches enter the holiest weekend of the Christian calendar, state officials sent a blunt message: Don't hold Easter services unless you can keep worshippers far apart.
The Oregon Health Authority on Thursday issued new rules for maintaining social distancing during the pandemic that specifically addressed religious communities.
The rules are a more detailed itemization of Gov. Kate Brown's March 23 stay-home order, which says Oregonians must avoid all social and recreational activities in which people are unable to maintain 6 feet of social distance.
"It may feel difficult to be apart during times when faith communities traditionally come together for religious observances and celebrations," the OHA's new rules say. "Please know that the sacrifice you are making by staying home will help us together to save lives in our community."
In the April 9 memo, state officials emphasized that all gatherings of 25 people or more are banned statewide, and that even if a large crowd can be divided into separate rooms with fewer than 10 people, that would still be a violation of Gov. Brown's order.
The order allows small congregations of fewer than 25 people to gather, so long as they can maintain at least 6 feet of distance from those who aren't in the same household.
The memo includes an entire section dedicated to churches holding drive-in services in their parking lot. In these circumstances, drivers can roll down car windows, but they must maintain 6 feet between vehicles, and attendees must stay in their cars.
The memo prohibits communion: the sacrament in which a cracker or bread and wine or juice are shared from a priest or pastor to congregants.
This rule may stifle some local churches' plans for Easter services tomorrow if they had anticipated being allowed to serve communion through car windows while wearing personal protective equipment.
At least one large Portland church had planned on a drive-in communion, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported Thursday. It is unclear if the plans have changed since the new guidelines were issued.
"There may not be any communion distribution," the OHA's memo says. "Any use of the church building would need to be kept to a minimum and ideally avoided altogether. Any use would also need to be in line with physical distancing policies."
The guidelines recommend that while small gatherings are still allowed, gatherings of all sizes should be canceled—including baptisms and weddings—especially for older attendees and those who are medically vulnerable.
As of Saturday afternoon, 1,447 Oregonians had tested positive for the coronavirus, and 51 had died from the virus statewide.
"In uncertain times, faith leaders have a key role to play. They offer comfort and care to many burdened by illness, worry, isolation and economic hardship," the OHA said in Saturday's memo. "We appreciate the opportunity to work together to lessen these burdens by reducing the spread of COVID-19."