Osterholm and Walz talk COVID-19 and churches

May 11, 2020
Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

By: Christa Meland

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon—so for the foreseeable future, Minnesotans should find creative ways to gather and be church.
That’s the key message shared by Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, in a May 5 Facebook Live session hosted by the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA.
Meanwhile, in a conference call later that day, Gov. Tim Walz told judicatory leaders from across Minnesota—including Bishop Bruce R. Ough—that he’s committed to partnering with them to provide helpful guidance for faith communities.
In that call, organized by the Minnesota Council of Churches, Walz said he feels a “cautious urgency” to help churches re-open because they are “fundamental” to people’s well-being—but given that social distancing will probably be required for a year or more, gatherings will need to look different.
“This is where we want to partner with you,” he told leaders. “What does it take to smartly open a congregation, a temple, a mosque to allow folks to worship in community but do to so in a really smart manner so we don’t make this worse?”
The pandemic’s trajectory
More than 500 people of faith across multiple denominations tuned in live to hear Osterholm, who painted a sobering picture of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that we are still in the early stages of this global health crisis and “things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.”

Gov. Tim Walz told judicatory leaders he feels a “cautious urgency” to help churches re-open, but gatherings will need to look different.
Health experts estimate that somewhere between 5 and 15 percent of the U.S. population has been infected with the coronavirus to date. That number will not slow down until either there’s a vaccine or we get to 60 to 70 percent of the population having become infected and reach “herd immunity.” (Herd immunity refers to a time when most of a population is immune to an infectious disease—or, in this case, already had and overcame the disease—which provides indirect protection to those who are not.)
Osterholm pointed out that even after there is a vaccine—which he believes will take at least a year—it will likely take much longer until it is widely available. “We’re living on virus time right now and not human time,” he said.

Osterholm shared three possible trajectories for the virus to get to 60 to 70 percent transmission:
  1. It could start to level off in the summer and we’d see very few cases for several months, which would give some the false impression that the virus is behind us. Then we’d have a major outbreak later, likely in the fall, that far surpasses anything we’ve seen to date.
  2. There could be “foothill bumps” with periodic flare-ups or waves; each time there is a new wave, we’d be asked to social distance until we can once again flatten the curve.
  3. There could be a “slow burn” with consistent cases every day until we get to the point where 60 to 70 percent of people have contracted the virus.
“Like gravity works for physical items, viral gravity works for this virus,” Osterholm said, noting that each infected person typically gives the virus to at least two more people. “It will keep working to find people.”
Sixty days ago, COVID-19 wasn’t even in top 100 causes of death. Today, it’s the leading cause of death in the U.S., ahead of heart disease and cancer.
What this means for churches
Osterholm encourages churches to embrace virtual worship and to be prepared to gather that way for the long haul. COVID-19 is transmitted through aerosols breathed in, so anytime you have multiple people gathered in a single space, everyone present is at risk—particularly because symptoms of coronavirus typically don’t show up until several days after someone is infected.
“If you have 25 people, even in a moderately sized church, you’ve got a lot of aerosols,” he said, adding that singing is especially risky because of the number of aerosols it produces.
Osterholm also said wearing cloth face masks, washing hands frequently, and sanitizing surfaces aren’t adequate protection from the virus and do not provide immunity. He fears these actions are giving people a false sense of security.
One potentially saving grace as we head into summer, however, is outdoor worship—which Osterholm called “a great idea” because of how quickly the virus dissipates outdoors. However, he noted that the challenge with outdoor worship is making sure people remain at least six feet apart from one another and don’t congregate as many tend to want to do.
Osterholm acknowledged that he doesn’t know when it will be safe for churches to gather in sanctuaries. There might be a temporary respite this summer if cases level off, but if that happens, the virus will undoubtedly return later with even more vigor. He reminded those tuned in that they are critically important sources of leadership, compassion, understanding, and support during this challenging season.
“If there was ever a time people need ministry, it’s right now,” he said. But it’s clear to him: Virtual worship is “as perfect as you can get right now for what we need.”
What you need to know
State officials have said there will likely be a phased approach to resuming in-person gatherings, but Walz confirmed that the thresholds for each stage have not yet been determined. Given that, and in light the latest information about the virus in Minnesota, there are three things Bishop Ough wants all churches to know right now:
  1. All congregations have been asked to suspend in-person worship through May 30, but leaders and congregations should anticipate it being longer. Gov. Walz’s stay-at-home order might be lifted by then, but COVID-19 will still be spreading—and any indoor gathering, no matter how many precautions we take, will still present a significant exposure risk.
  2. All churches should focus on creating and/or strengthening online worship and virtual engagement with the understanding that even when we can re-gather, many won’t feel comfortable doing so. At the same time, keep working on developing a detailed plan for how and when you might safely bring people together for in-person worship when we have permission to do so, recognizing that initial gatherings will need to be very small—probably no more than 10 people. First UMC (the Coppertop) in Duluth has developed a thorough and thoughtful plan, which is shared with permission as an example.
  3. Following the recent conversation with Gov. Walz, the Minnesota Conference hopes to work with the state officials, the Minnesota Council of Churches, and other judicatory leaders to collaboratively develop phased guidelines for returning to in-person worship. Recognizing that such guidelines are needed urgently, however, we have also begun working on our own phased plan to share with you in the coming weeks. Because the impact of the virus and the guidelines for minimizing its spread are frequently changing, the phased guidelines will be a starting point and will need to be continually updated as new information emerges.
In his closing remarks, Walz commended faith leaders and reminded them they play a critically important role in helping communities through the pandemic.
“I want to thank you…for administering on people’s mental and spiritual [well-being] and all the issues that come up in life,” he said. “So many times, it’s you on the phone that they turn to or that they have there to help them. We view you as partners in this.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404


(612) 870-0058