President Ramaphosa has allowed the places of worship open for service of not more than 50 people. Dr Margaret Blackie, a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University, believes this to be a terrible decision.
Whilst many church buildings may be sufficiently large to ensure that people are a good bit more than 1.5m apart, spending an hour or more in the company of others is problematic. Time spent together is as important as the physical distance.
With every breath an infected person is breathing out water droplets laden with the virus. The more virus particles you breathe in, the greater the chance you have of contracting the disease. The 1.5m distance means that most virus containing droplets will drop to the floor before they reach you under normal breathing circumstances. Talking and particularly singing increase the speed with which droplets leave your mouth and therefore they travel further. (Have you ever been trapped by someone who really does spit when they speak?)
Nonetheless, even with physical distance, some droplets will reach you. If you spend five minutes with a person then the number of virus particles you breathe in will be very low. If you spend an hour with someone you may well be exposed to sufficient virus particles to contract the disease. In a church service, the normal air circulation will mean that even those who are 5m-10m away, or perhaps even further, may well breathe in sufficient amounts of the virus to fall ill.
Bear in mind, that the person most at risk in all of this will be the priest, because he is exposed to the whole congregation, just in small batches.
Masks reduce the transmission of the virus but they do not offer anything like near full protection. Perhaps a good analogy is to think about using a newspaper to protect you from the rain. It works for a short distance with a light shower. But for a longer distance and with heavier rain it will not suffice. A mask will work well for quick encounters, but will not be effective in a sustained interaction. A church service could be the equivalent of a viral downpour!
To all priests, pastors, and ministers, I strongly implore that you do not open your churches to formal services any time in the next four weeks. June will see a massive spike in the rate of infection transmission. Please do not allow your churches to be a hotspot for transmission. Your desire to serve your congregants will result in people falling ill and potentially dying. You will be directly contributing to worsening the situation.
To all people, if your church leadership decides to start services, please do not attend.
Shane Claiborne tweeted this last week: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if churches were the last places to reopen because of how obsessed we are with loving our neighbours and protecting the most vulnerable?’