Written by: FOR SA
Article source: forsa.org.za

As of midnight on Sunday 20th September 2020, South Africa moved to Level 1, which the President has called “the new normal”.

The “rules” for religious gatherings at Level 1, are contained in the  Level 1 Regulations read together with the updated Directions relating to norms and standards for religious gatherings published in the Government Gazette on 1st October 2020. These “rules” apply to any “religious gathering” (i.e. meeting for religious purposes) or “religious activity” that takes place at the place of worship – not just Sunday services.

Despite the above, there are still areas governing churches and other religious organisations that remain unclear. As a general principle, where laws and/or regulations are passed which lack clarity and are open to more than one reasonable interpretation, the benefit of doubt lies with the individual / organisation, not with Government.  If challenged, at the very least, you, therefore, have an arguable case / legal defence to support the position / interpretation you may have adopted.

However, we need to be as practical and responsible as possible with what  is clear. In that way, we at least have a defensible case if challenged on anything that remains a “grey area”.

Q: Must my church, synagogue, mosque, temple etc resume services at this stage?

A: No. The re-opening (or not) of places of worship is the prerogative of the organisation’s leaders, who (one assumes) are likely to consider what is in the best interests of their congregants and to make responsible choices.

Equally, in the event that a church or religious organisation does re-open, congregants can also choose to attend (or not), depending on their own health risk assessment. In particular, the updated Directions for religious gatherings “encourage” persons over the age of 60 and persons with co-morbidities to continue worshipping at home.

Q: How many people can meet together at one time for a religious gathering?

A: Clause 69 of the  Level 1 Regulations provides as follows:

“(1) Every person when attending a gathering and in order to limit exposure to COVID-19, must –
(a) Wear a face mask;
(b) Adhere to all health protocols;
(c) Maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres from each other; and

(d) Adhere to any other health protocols and social distancing measures as provided for in directions issued by the relevant Cabinet member after consultation with the Cabinet member responsible for health.

(2) An owner or operator of any indoor or outdoor facility where gatherings are held must display the certificate of occupancy which sets out the maximum number of persons the facility may hold.

(3) Gatherings at faith-based institutions are limited to 50% of the capacity of the venue, with a maximum of 250 persons at an indoor venue and a maximum of 500 persons at an outdoor venue.”

This is echoed by Clause 3(1) of the updated Directions pertaining to religious gatherings. (However, Clause 3(2) of the Directions does provide that religious organisations should, where possible, convene services through virtual platforms.) In terms of Clause 3(3), religious gatherings may be conducted one after the other either indoors or outdoors, or both indoors and outdoors simultaneously, as long as there is at least one (1) hour between services.

In light of the above, you can fit in as many people (but no more than 250 for indoors, or 500 people for outdoors) as 50% of the venue can accommodate, with each person keeping 1.5 metres distance from the other. (Note that, in terms of the updated Directions, religious leaders and persons in charge of places of worship must ensure that seating arrangements are compliant with social distancing norms.)

Note also that the Level 1 Regulations do not specifically say 50% of the “premises” or “building”. It simply refers to a “venue”, which is not defined. This does leave some room for interpretation – some may interpret it as 50% of the meeting space, some may interpret it as

50% of the entire building. It is also possible to interpret this to mean that multiple gatherings may take place in a building / premises with multiple venues. However, Clause 1 of the Directions does define “place of worship” as meaning “any place or premises used for religious purposes”.

Q: Does the 2-hour restriction on religious gatherings still apply?

A: The Directions for religious gatherings under Level 3, stated that “all religious services may not exceed 2 hours with a 30-minute intermission between services”.

The updated Directions for religious gatherings at Level 1 do not limit services to any length of time, except that at least one (1) hour is required between each service.

Q: What does the “certificate of occupancy” to be displayed (Clause 69(2) of the Level 1 Regulations) refer to?

A: The certificate of occupancy appears to be a “grey area”. Buildings (including churches) which were constructed before laws such as the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act, 1977 and other local / municipal regulations requiring / issuing a “certificate of occupancy” came into force, will not have such “official” certification. In other instances, the “certificate of occupancy” does not state the number of people that can safely be accommodated in the building – although the building plans may.  However, as a general principle of law, legislation is not retrospective.

Where no “official” certificate of occupancy is available, a suggestion may be to measure the dimensions of the venue where a “gathering” will take place, then calculate its occupancy based on the formula of 1.5 metres distancing between people. This number can then be put on the organisation’s letterhead and displayed in the venue under the heading “Certificate of Occupancy”.

It is in not clear how this requirement would apply, or be enforced, in respect of outdoors gatherings on, for example, a big lawn or sports field.

Q: May home cells resume, and how many people may meet in a home at one time?

A: Yes. The Level 1 Regulations allow for all kinds of gatherings (including social, religious and political gatherings) to take place.

In terms of Clause 69(4) of the Regulations, “gatherings at social events are limited to 50 percent of the capacity of the venue with a maximum of 250 persons at an indoor venue and a maximum of 500 persons at an outdoor venue”.

In light of this, you can fit in as many people (but no more than 250 for indoors, or 500 people for outdoors) as 50% of your house (lounge, or garden) can accommodate, with each person keeping 1.5 metres distance from the other.

Q: May people of the same household sit together in church without being 1.5 metres apart?

A: The Regulations / Directions pertaining to religious gatherings do not make any specific

mention or exemption for households to sit together without being 1.5m apart. It would, however, make sense that people who live together in the same household and drive together to church in the same car, should be able to sit together.

Also, a document issued to faith-based organisations by the Western Cape Government states that, “members of the same household may sit/stand next to each other but must keep a 1.5m distance from individuals from other households”.

Q: What are the health / sanitisation protocols for religious gatherings at Level 1?

A: In terms of the updated Directions for religious gatherings, every place of worship must ensure that every person entering a place of worship complies with the general measures to contain the spread of the virus, as per Clauses 5(1) and 69(1) of the Level 1 Regulations. This includes:

– Ensuring every person wears a face mask covering the nose and mouth, for the duration of the religious activity. No mask, no entry. (Churches and religious organisations may want to keep some spare masks for visitors that may arrive on the day).

– Ensuring all persons maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres from another. (In this regard, we strongly advise marking out where people should sit / stand for worship.)

– Having sufficient hand sanitiser (of at least 70% alcohol, or a generic alternative) available at the entrance of, and in, the place of worship which all attendees are required to use.

– Ensuring that there are facilities for the washing of hands with water and soap. (Please ensure that paper towels, rather than cloth towels, are used.)

– Implementing measures to ensure that all surfaces and equipment are cleaned / sanitised before and after religious activities, and before the next one commences.

– Ensuring that all areas such as toilets, common areas, door handles, electronic equipment and objects are sanitised as regularly as possible as required in the circumstances to prevent spread of the virus.

– Note in particular that the updated Directions require that, in the case of an indoor gathering, religious leaders and persons in charge must ensure that the place of worship is well ventilated while in use.

Q: Must we still, at Level 1, comply with all the temperature checks and symptoms assessment measures at every religious gathering?

A: Religious organisations are expected to fully comply with all the legal requirements in the Regulations and updated Directions pertaining to religious gatherings. This means, in particular, that all religious leaders or persons in charge of worship must ensure that every person who enters:

– Completes an attendance register with the following details:    full names; residential

address; cell number, telephone number or e-mail address; as well as the contact details of persons living in the same residence as the person attending the religious activity. (Note that there may be no sharing of pens, alternatively pens need to be properly sanitized before/after every use).

– Is physically screened for symptoms. Any one or more symptoms, no entry. (This will require the purchasing of temperature check devices. Note that anyone with a temperature above 38 degrees Celsius, must be sent home).

– In addition, reports whether they suffer from any of the additional symptoms stipulated in Clause 4(2)(b). (This will require drawing up an attendance register, and symptoms assessment form, to be completed and signed by every person upon entering). Any one or more symptoms, no entry.

– If he/she starts experiencing any of the symptoms, immediately informs the religious

leader or person in charge. (It would be good to include this as a standard announcement at the beginning of every service). If this happens, there are certain duties on the religious leader or person in charge (see Clause 4(3)).

In addition, all attendees should be informed about the dangers of COVID-19 and how to prevent it.

Q: Can “children’s church” resume?

A: Technically speaking, in terms of the law, children’s church is a “partial care facility”. In this regard, the  Minister  of  Social  Development (during  Alert  Level  2)  published  Directions pertaining to “partial care facilities” on 11 September 2020.  In terms of those Directions, “partial care facilities” were given a narrow meaning and referred to as an “after school service”. This would, therefore, not necessarily apply to children’s church, but the position is not 100% clear.

In the current circumstances, it may be wise (even if the Directions do not directly apply) to have regard to the Directions for “after-school services” and to try and align whatever you are doing in children’s church as close as possible with these.

An alternative option would be to treat children’s church as a “gathering” in itself (since ALL gatherings of whatever type are now allowed at Level 1), especially if this will take place in a venue separate from the main service.

Note: We are aware that in schools (certainly in the Western Cape), social distancing of 1 metre only is acceptable in primary and secondary schools. In view of this, we do not believe it will (or should) be problematic if children attending children’s church were to observe similar social distancing. However, to err on the safe side, 1.5 metres is preferable.

Q: May congregants “fellowship” before and/or after a service?

A: The Directions for religious gatherings under Level 3, stated that “social activities before and after the religious activity is not allowed”. The updated Directions for religious gatherings at Level 1, does not contain such a prohibition and the implication therefore is that “fellowship” is allowed.

Importantly however, the updated Directions specifically state that every religious leader or person in charge of the place of worship “must ensure that there is no physical contact between persons at the place of worship, including handshaking and hugging”. (our emphasis).

Q: Can we sing / worship together as a congregation?

A: The Directions for religious gatherings under Level 3, stated that “singing of hymns is limited to solo performances, or pre-recorded performances during the religious service or activity”.

The updated Directions for religious gatherings at Level 1, does not contain a similar clause and the implication therefore is that corporate singing / worship is allowed – as long as it happens behind masks (the wearing of which remains compulsory at all times).

Q: How many people are allowed on the worship team / band?

A: The updated Directions for religious gatherings at Level 1 (similar to Level 3) states that “where an activity, such as preaching or leading worship, cannot be performed with face masks, the distance between persons must be increased to 2.5 metres”.

The implication is that there is no restriction on the number of people allowed on the worship team / band – as long as whoever is singing (without a mask), stands 2.5 metres away from anyone else (who is not singing, and has to wear a mask).

Q: What about (infant / adult) baptisms, the laying on of hands, etc?

A: According to the updated Directions for religious gatherings, “any religious ritual that requires personal contact may not be performed during any religious activity”.

Technically speaking, therefore, the minister and/or congregants who are doing the baptizing (whether at church, a private home, the beach, etc), are not allowed to physically touch the person who is baptised.

Where water is sprinkled on a baby or other person (without any physical touch by the minister), this is clearly not an issue. In the case of adult baptism by immersion in water, some churches have avoided physical touch by pouring water over the person’s head. Others perform baptism by getting into the water with the person to be baptised (with appropriate social distancing), but encouraging the person to briefly dip his/her own head / body under water.

FOR SA has written to the Minister in this regard, as baptism – for many believers – is a central tenet of their faith, which cannot indefinitely be suspended or not practised strictly in accordance with people’s faith convictions and interpretation of the Scriptures.

Q: May we serve / share communion?

A: In terms of the updated Directions for religious gatherings at Level 1 (the same as for Level 3), “no substance or liquid may be shared between persons”. This would include the “sharing” of elements during communion (e.g. drinking from the same cup).

To the extent possible, therefore, congregants should be encouraged to bring their own communion emblems. Alternatively, the emblems could be placed on chairs prior to the meeting already, or pre-packed disposable communion packs could be ordered, or communion could be distributed by a person wearing sterile gloves.

Q: What about the taking up, and counting, of offerings and collections?

A: In terms of the updated Directions for religious gatherings, “donations and collections must be done using online and other contactless methods where possible. Cash should be collected in a receptacle that is set in one place and handled by one individual and not passed around”.

With regard to counting, the updated Directions state that “any person counting offerings or gifts must sanitise their hands before and after … counting”.

Q: Can we have drive-in and/or drive-through services?

A: Technically speaking, even though some nations allowed these to take place even when the virus was at its peak, the Regulations in South Africa do not specifically cater for this. In this regard also, we mention that the COGTA Minister, in a letter to FOR SA, on 29 June 2020 (i.e. during Level 3) indicated that “drive-in gatherings are not currently provided for” and “may pose a risk”.

However, we are aware that some churches in South Africa have gone ahead and held services in this manner.  Although initially SAPS intervened to prevent this or cap the number of cars allowed at a drive-in gathering, drive-in and drive-through services continue.

This seems reasonable in light of the fact that drive-in cinemas are allowed, as well as the fact that “outdoor gatherings” of up to 500 people are allowed.

Q: How many people may attend a funeral?

A: The Level 1 Regulations and updated Directions for religious gatherings, limit funerals to 100 persons or less, provided that not more than 50% of the capacity of the venue is used, with all persons wearing face masks and observing health and social distancing (at least 1.5 metres between persons) protocols. Night vigils are still not allowed.

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Date published: 08/10/2020
Feature image: www.rawpixel.com

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