With the recent uptick of COVID-19 cases in Hall County, local church leaders have revisited a familiar protocol — mask wearing.
While some have chosen not to enforce mandatory face coverings, others like Grace Episcopal Church and Gainesville First United Methodist Church have recently set new rules.
As of Thursday, Aug. 5, Northeast Georgia Health System had 133 patients being treated for COVID. In the past two weeks, NGHS has reported 578 cases.
The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, rector of Grace Episcopal in Gainesville, announced to his parish July 29 the decision to require mask wearing indoors “until the rate and risk of infection decreases.” This includes vaccinated and unvaccinated church members.
Higginbotham said this choice was driven by the Gospel and its message to “care for the most vulnerable.”
“Is it most important to assert the principle that I have the right to not wear a mask, or is it most important to care for our brothers and sisters?” Higginbotham said. “That is where we landed.”
During last week’s services, Higginbotham said all members of the church, including himself and the choir, complied with the mask protocols. At Grace Episcopal, he said the switch back to face coverings hasn’t been an issue.
“We’re open and say, ‘No one likes this,’” Higginbotham said. “But, we don’t like a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important to do.”
This Sunday, Gainesville First UMC will request mask wearing for every unvaccinated individual, regardless of age, who enters the building. This rule also applies to adults serving in the church’s secured children’s area.
The Rev. Mike Morgan of Gainesville First UMC, said this decision was carefully deliberated.
“What led to it is the recent spike in COVID cases in the country and in our community,” he said. “But, also the recognition of how important it is to come together as safely as we can.”
Unlike Higginbotham and Morgan, Brian Evans, pastor of Oakwood Baptist Church, said his congregation has no plans of implementing mask wearing during services.
“We occasionally have someone that will wear one, and it’s totally fine with us,” he said. “We don’t have a policy one way or the other.”
Evans said members of his church are free to make their own choices, and that includes mask wearing.
“We're peace loving people at our church, and we’re not trying to fight anybody except the devil,” he said.
The Rev. Jeremy Shoulta, who leads First Baptist Church of Gainesville, said as of Sunday, Aug.1, clergy, nursery and child care staff started wearing face coverings in the presence of large numbers of people inside the church.
As for other members, he said masks are encouraged, but not required.
“We’re not mandating anything, but certainly welcome the use of masks in church activities,” Shoulta said. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of attendees using masks over the past couple of weeks, and we anticipate that will continue to be the case in the foreseeable future.”
Similar to Shoulta, Ben Garrison, campus pastor of Christ Place Church North, said mask wearing is encouraged inside his church, as well as getting vaccinated for COVID.
For those medically compromised or uncomfortable with attending in person, Christ Place still streams its services online.
“The hard part is that we know people are very spirited on both sides of the discussion,” Garrison said. “We try to remind them we can still love each other and serve each other even if we see different views.”