KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — Places of worship may not be allowed to reopen this weekend in Knox County after all. It will now depend on what the State of Tennessee decides to do.
Knox County, as one of the state's largest metro counties with its own health department, was permitted to make its own reopening plan separate from the state.
However, the local plan can be overridden by new state or federal guidelines that are released.
In this case, Gov. Bill Lee signed a new executive order "strongly encouraging" places of worship to continue to do virtual or online services and gatherings. The state is expected to release its guidance on Faith-based and Community Initiatives soon. It said there are to be no local orders related to faith-based communities so that guidance will have to come from the state.
"We understand this can be confusing," said Charity Menefee, KCHD Regional Hospital Coordinator.
That guidance for faith-based communities has not yet been released, but the Knox County plan will be amended to match it when it does.
On May 1, Knox County will implement Phase 1 of a planned reopening strategy. In addition to gyms, salons, and restaurants, this phase will also allow for places of worship to reopen.
However, the county is implementing a number of safety guidelines to help worshippers stave off COVID-19 in the meantime.
Specifically, Knox County’s plan indicates only “core worship” services will be permitted in Phase One. That means activities such as groups and classes, youth services, potlucks, or other social events are not permitted during this phase.
The physical taking of sacraments, like communion, will not be permitted under Phase One. Those types of rituals, the county said, break social distancing guidelines which will still be maintained.
Worshippers will be required to wear face masks during service. The county is also discouraging singing, saying in the official Community Strategy for Phased Reopening document that “it is thought to be an activity that expels significantly more virus than talking.”
If a place of worship provides onsite service, the number of capacity must be at 50%. Seating areas must also be marked off to ensure 6 feet of physical distancing in all directions between households.
Places of worship are also encouraged to offer multiple sessions in order to cut down on attendance at each service, and to continue offering online streaming services for as long as possible.
You can read more about Phase One in the county’s Community Strategy for Phased Reopening here.