Worshippers at the Butte Baptist Church leave service on Sunday. Most of the pews were occupied by one single-family, or groups sat on opposite ends of each other (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).

As Malheur County enters the second phase of reopening, churches can restore in-person services with up to 250 people. But they are expected to keep worshippers at a safe distance of six feet apart.

The new phase means distributed seating, no talking after church, thorough disinfecting and a number of other small adjustments.

Still, for the 18,000 people in the Malheur County estimated to attend church, in-person services are back on. 

Pastors across the county are working to protect their congregations from both the coronavirus and the possibility of closing again if a case emerges in the congregation.

Pastor Steve Wilson at the Nyssa Church of the Nazarene has seen 49 of his 50-60 attendees return since the church reopened at the beginning of June, and an overflow room awaits the returners who exceed the sanctuary’s capacity of 50.

At his church, gloved ushers direct the congregation to distanced seating, deliver disposable wafer-filled cups every other week and move the congregation along as they are dismissed row by row past the hand sanitizers at the sanctuary entrance.

A cleaning crew wipes down the hall an hour before worship, and Wilson asks for worshippers to wear masks while coming and going, but not while sitting.

“My older folks, especially, I don’t want anything to happen to them,” he said.

When Pastor Steven Marshall at Vale Christian Church went virtual March 11, he never lost connection with his flock. His Facebook live videos attracted as many as 1,200 views, and on special occasions he’d deliver gifts.

At the beginning, dressed in gloves and masks, Marshall delivered toilet paper with notes of encouragement: “I love you, I miss you, please stay strong.”

On Mother’s Day, it was flowers to every woman in his church. Every time he saw how many people were tuning in, he knew they were there, with him.

“What was really so hard for me wasn’t how much I wanted to see the congregation, but how much the congregation wanted to be there, and couldn’t,” he said.

Come June 11, they could. About 75 people sat in the chairs Marshall placed six feet apart, and placed another two chairs between them and other families. Those who felt unsure about the meeting watched on the Facebook video, and the two overflow rooms went unused.

The worship only took an hour - thirty minutes shorter than usual. To keep kids apart, Marshall canceled the youth service, and cut the songs in half to keep the worship length in the kid’s attention span.

The Vale Christian Church delivered communion with packages of grape juice and unleavened bread spread on a table, and church workers patrol the sanctuary with handheld lawn sprayers filled with disinfectant.

“It felt good, to be together,” Marshall said.

Pastor Danny Morrison at the Butte Baptist Church, off the Thunderegg Highway east of Vale, delivered his service through a low-frequency FM radio station to people who drove, parked and stayed in their vehicles. Morrison has been welcoming people back to in-person services since May 31st, but has decided to maintain drive-in services and videos posted on YouTube and Facebook to those who still don’t feel comfortable inside the building. 

Even with fewer people present, Morrison said outreach in general has increased, with people tuning in from Tennessee and Florida to their YouTube services.

“We miss the older folks who don’t have access to that personal touch anymore, and we have had a couple of deaths in our church, with no opportunity for them to grieve like we usually would,” Morrison said.

Morrison spoke to a mostly unmasked congregation of 55 Sunday, June 21. Three families listened to the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors through their car radios. No worshippers used their overflow room.

Father Cami Fernando at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Vale had been doubling his masses to four masses a weekend to service more people while minimizing contact, but began moving back to the same twice-a-weekend service on June 20, with every other pew roped off.

Pastor Darrell Hansen of Oregon Trail Baptist in Vale said his church has been social distancing, and that the church has been open for in-person services for a while, but declined to elaborate.

Messages weren’t returned in calls to the Vale Church of Jesus Christ of LDS, Church of God in Christ, Origins Faith Community, Ontario Community Church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and Calvary Chapel Ontario.

News tip? Contact reporter Aidan McGloin by email at [email protected] or call 541-473-3377.

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