When community spread of COVID-19, or the coronavirus, began occurring in Bell County, many churches chose to transition to online platforms for the time being in order to safeguard members of their congregations.

Two local churches, Belton Church of Christ (BCOC) and First Baptist Church (FBC) Belton, are closely monitoring Gov. Greg Abbott’s Abbott’s reopening of Texas plan to determine when reopening is appropriate. Through Executive Order (GA-18), places of worship are considered “essential” and are permitted to conduct services with the following restrictions: 25 percent occupancy limit, masks are required, and surfaces are to be cleaned between each service.

In a Facebook video posted to BCOC’s page, Claude Ross, shepherd at BCOC, provided an update on their plans for reopening, stating that he and his fellow shepherds have prayerfully discussed various options and hope to reopen their doors as soon as Sunday, May 24. This is a tentative date, as they will make adjustments should Bell County undergo a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“We miss everyone; we miss coming together in person; we miss being together,” Ross said.

With that, he acknowledged the severity of the coronavirus and communicated the church’s commitment to prioritize the safety of the congregation.

Regarding how church will be conducted once its doors reopen, BCOC is considering having multiple services to align with the governor’s guidelines.

“We don’t know exactly what our worship assembly will look like, but it will be different,” Ross said. “We intend to observe social distancing; we are considering having multiple services and to limit the number of people in the building at any one time.”

For the next two weeks, BCOC will continue online worship on Sunday morning, and Bible studies, children’s classes and youth classes will also continue to meet online. Ross said supplemental classes and groups will not be permitted to meet at the church building at this time, but they will have the ability to choose whether they meet off site or virtually.

Likewise, FBC is continuing virtual worship and Bible studies for the month of May with plans to reopen the first Sunday in June. FBC will be taking a slow approach to reopening, as they “see no sense of urgency to make rapid changes,” Senior Pastor Andy Davis said.

“Our people seem appreciative of the worship services, Zoom Sunday school, discipleship, encouraging devotionals and the multitude of other things going on,” Davis said. “Our age group leaders have been very effective in reaching out to children, youth, college students, adults and our special needs families.”

That being said, FBC will be reopening in two stages, with the first stage – small worship services, possible Saturday services with no more than 100 people in attendance – lasting for at least the entirety of June.

“We are going to ask that all of our folks over 80 years of age not attend in Stage One,” Davis said. “Furthermore, those in any other age group with underlying health issues will be asked not to attend in Stage One for their own protection.”

The following preventative measures will be implemented by FBC when the church’s doors reopen: “designated entrances and exits, specific seating in the worship center, proper physical distancing, availability of hand sanitizers, a request that attendees wear masks (four year-olds and above), removal of all hymnals and pew Bibles from the worship center (as they are not easy to sanitize), and the publication of specific guidelines concerning who should not attend on a given Sunday.” If a member of one’s family is sick, FBC is requesting that the entire family stays home that day.

“We will allow time between services to fully sanitize the worship center, bathrooms and other common areas and touch points,” Davis added. “Entrance and exit doors will be operated by greeters with appropriate PPE, and interior doors will be propped open where possible to avoid contact.”

During the month of June, Davis said he and his fellow church leaders will observe and analyze the coronavirus activity in Bell County to ensure advancing to Stage Two is in the church’s best interest. Although he is eager to return to a sense of normalcy within the church, Davis said conducting church online has been beneficial in more ways than one.

“We are excited that some old friends have rejoined us, and new friends have joined us in the virtual environment, and we sincerely hope to see them face-to-face when the time is right,” Davis said.

Regarding the congregation’s response to virtual church service, Davis said he was uplifted by their adaptability.

“Our congregation responded just like the group of eight hearty souls who founded the church in 1853 – they adapted and made it work to the glory of God,” Davis said. “We have improved how we communicate in the virtual environment, and we will not return to the former more limited ways.”