KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — COVID-19 cases are rising once again in East Tennessee. When case counts reached levels similar to these last year, several churches changed how they worshipped. Instead of gathering in person, many held digital services. Many also started requiring masks and social distancing.
The changes came after state leaders released guidelines for how churches could stay safe during the pandemic. Now, however, there is little indication similar policies could be implemented at the state level. Instead, some churches are starting to consider implementing COVID-19 restrictions themselves.
At Overcoming Believers Church, masks are not required. People can gather and worship without masks right now, but church leaders said that could change soon as COVID-19 cases continue rising.
“We had that requirement before and kind of eased up,” said Kimberly Watkins, the church's executive pastor. "And now that the delta variant is strong; now, we are contemplating masks."
After streaming services live online for over a year, Harriet Tubman Street church began in-person gatherings back in April. They returned over Easter weekend.
Since then around 300 people routinely show up for Sunday services, after it used to seat 3,000 people. Many members still watch services online, and those who do come are asked to practice social distancing. The overall goal is safety.
“We want to make sure everybody stays safe,” said Watkins.
And at Greater Warner African Methodist Episcopal Church in East Knoxville, face-coverings are required. If members show up without one, the church will provide one.
“We have a table set up at every entrance that has extra masks, and we have hand sanitizer and spray,” said Cynthia Finch, the chair of the church's health committee.
She said that the church does not just give sermons and services about Bible verses. They are also educating people about the COVID-19 vaccine, encouraging people to get vaccinated and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Finch said the church also hosts vaccination drives to make getting vaccinated as easy as possible for people.
Overcoming Believers Church will also start hosting vaccination drives as leaders try to prevent COVID-19 cases from rising. Its first event will be on Aug. 25 and the Knox County Health Department will sponsor it, according to officials.
Other places of worship like City Hills Church and North Knoxville Baptist Church continue to have both in-person and online services as a COVID-19 safety measure.