Last week, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance on masking, many school districts, government leaders, and retail businesses released a frenzy of announcements, either ending their mask requirements for vaccinated people or ending masking requirements for everyone — effective immediately.
While half my social media feeds filled with those celebrating what felt like the end of the pandemic, the other half filled with collective fears and laments from other immunocompromised people like me. Are we once again being forgotten, or worse, knowingly pushed aside to center the preferences of the privileged?
The new CDC guidance has also prompted many pastors and faith leaders to revisit their own masking and social distancing guidelines for worship. But as an immunocompromised person, I want churches to know that if you choose to allow your congregation to unmask now, before we have any sort of herd immunity, you are asking immunocompromised people to choose between risking their lives or being excluded from church.
I have seen some churches respond to the new CDC guidelines by ditching their mask mandates and saying, “we will continue our livestream though, so those people can safely watch from home.” The irony here is that if the livestream was truly equal to meeting in person, there would be no issue with asking your church to continue to forgo any in-person gatherings until it was safe for everyone to attend. The fact that churches are returning to in-person services suggests they’re aware livestreaming doesn’t offer the same benefits or foster the same sense of community. Choosing to drop the mask requirements is choosing to exclude immunocompromised people and families with young unvaccinated children from full inclusion in the body of Christ.
Here are a few points I would beg churches to consider when making decisions about masking:
First, read the actual CDC guidance itself. Despite the way so much of the media has framed this as the end of mask mandates, the actual guidance says no such thing. As CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in an interview this past Sunday, “This is not permission for widespread removal of masks ... These decisions have to be made at the jurisdictional level, at the community level.” So what does the guidance say? It specifically outlines what activities should be safe for those who are fully vaccinated — a term it narrowly defines as those who are at least two weeks from completing all doses of a vaccine. The guidance also explicitly states that all unvaccinated people (who include those commonly referred to as “partially vaccinated”) need to continue all precautions, including masking. Most importantly, the guidance states that even fully vaccinated people need to continue to follow the masking requirements laid out by their state, local governments, or businesses. There is nothing in the guidance suggesting your church should end masking requirements, especially if you would not be willing to confirm the vaccination status of those entering unmasked.
Second, remember that only about 37 percent of the U.S. population is currently fully vaccinated. Many of the statistics reported in the media are either the total number of doses given or the number of eligible adults that have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Those numbers often lead to the misconception that we are rapidly nearing herd immunity, when in reality there are no states in which even 50 percent of the population is vaccinated yet, and some states like Mississippi have rates as low as 26 percent. This means that for every person who walks in the door of your church, it is statistically more likely that they are unvaccinated rather than vaccinated. Additionally, keep in mind that vaccinations only recently became available for kids ages 12-15, so no one in that age group has reached fully vaccinated status yet; kids 11 and under do not have an approved vaccine available to them at all. With even the new CDC guidance stating that unvaccinated people must still continue masking, that means a lot of people in your congregation still need to be masked in order to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
Most importantly, consider the growing research suggesting that COVID-19 vaccines are not as effective for some immunocompromised people. This population represents some of those already most vulnerable to COVID-19; their safety now depends on our nation either reaching herd immunity or continuing the use of masking and other COVID-19 precautions.
In the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18), Jesus illustrates the importance of decentering the majority to focus wholly on the one with greater needs. I imagine that for the other 99 sheep, it might feel unfair to have their own preferences and desires put on hold, while the shepherd chases after the one who is missing. I know that for many people in churches, it feels like they have already spent an entire year making sacrifices for the sake of the vulnerable, and they feel they deserve to have their preferences matter again.
I think it’s no coincidence then that only six verses after the parable of the lost sheep, we find Peter asking Jesus how many times we should forgive someone. “Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Peter asks (Matthew 18:21, CEB). Jesus replies, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.” I imagine Jesus would respond similarly to those who ask, “But we’ve been doing this for over a year already, isn’t that long enough?” I think Jesus would say, “Not just one year, but rather as many as seventy-seven years.” However long it takes for an unmasked church to be safe for even our most vulnerable members, that’s how long we should be willing to mask for them.
As you figure out how your church will respond to the new CDC guidelines, the decisions you make now will determine whether there is a place in your pews for families like mine, or whether we will be further excluded and forgotten.