By Madu Onuorah
With the release of the safety advisory for Churches and Mosques across the country on how to contain the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) during regular religious services, the euphoria over the lifting of restrictions on places of worship has died down.
The advisory was developed in liaison with the leadership of the religious community and State governments as baseline for the use of the religious centres.
Secretary to the Government of the Federation and chairman of the Presidential Task Force on (Coronavirus) COVID-19, Mr Boss Mustapha, said on Tuesday that guideline outlines “a minimum set of standards that have to be complied with for places of worship to safely operate nationwide” which was developed by the PTF in liaison with leadership of the religious communities in the country.
Advising that this should be used by State governments as the baseline for permitting the use of these facilities, Mustapha noted that “due to the nature of religious gatherings, places of worship are particularly recognised to have a major potential for spreading COVID-19 among worshippers, as demonstrated by several outbreaks globally linked to religious gatherings. Therefore, places of worship that are unable to comply with these measures should not be allowed to operate and may face prosecution.”
– All places of worship must sign up to full compliance with all aspects of non- pharmaceutical interventions required to protect the public from COVID-19, including but not limited to:
– Ensure the supply of running water and soap/alcohol sanitisers at entry and exit points and in all high-contact locations including bathrooms;
– Worshippers must sanitise their hands before entry;
– Provision of temperature checks before entry;
– Mandatory use of face masks;
– Strongly discourage all close contact including shaking hands, hugging, kissing, handing out of materials and sharing of worship implements including prayer mats, musical organs, microphones etc;
– Limit the capacity of the facility to allow for physical distancing of at least 2m between persons. Consider the use of floor/surface markings to guide distancing. Encourage people from same household to stay together;
– State governments to provide guidance on local arrangements for limiting capacity of places of worship based on strict maintenance of physical distancing rules;
– Volunteers should be limited to exact numbers needed and none should have an underlying medical condition or be above the age of 55 years; and
– The leadership of the mosques/churches will be responsible for full compliance with these rules.
– Limit congregational contact times, with places of worship only opening for regular church and mosque services;
– Churches to open from 5am and close by 8pm;
– For churches, each service shall be for a maximum of 1 hour with an interval of 30 mins in between services to allow time for disinfection;
– Mosques, to open 15 mins before Adhan and close 10 mins after prayers for the five prayers. Waiting period between Adhan and Iqamah should not be more than 10 minutes. Prayers to be shortened to reduce duration of contact between congregations;
– For Friday prayers, mosques are to open 20 minutes before prayers and close 20 minutes after prayers. Total time for Friday prayers including sermons should not exceed 1 hour;
– Islamiyah schools, All-Night Vigil, Sunday School and children activities are to remain suspended. For mosques, only the five daily prayers and Friday prayer services are allowed;
– Mass gatherings that make compliance with physical distancing impossible are not allowed. Stagger prayer sessions if necessary, to encourage greater opportunity for physical distancing. Encourage worshippers to sign up for preferred service time. Make virtual worship option available;
– Plan for separate entry and exit points and measures to direct the flow of people to avoid crowding and breach of physical distancing rules;
– There should be no social gatherings either before or after worship; and
– Business outlets within the church or mosque premises should remain closed.
– Advise vulnerable individuals such as those aged 55 years and above, those with impaired immune systems (e.g. HIV, cancer treatment) and underlying co-morbidities such as diabetes and heart disease to stay at home and consider remote participation or non-contact attendance e.g. drive-in services.
– Improve environmental hygiene and avoid surface contamination;
– Places of worship should preferably be free of carpets to allow easy and regular disinfection of floors and furniture;
– Keep all windows open during services and preferably use non-enclosed spaces/open air services as much as possible;
– Frequently clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces, high traffic areas, common areas, and bathrooms; and use diluted bleach (1000ppm) to disinfect all surfaces regularly after removal of visible dirt.
– Keep infected persons out and reduce the risk of onward transmission;
– Public awareness campaign through effective messaging using conventional media and online outlets and placing of signages/notices at strategic locations. This should address common symptoms, risk of transmission, vulnerability to severe illness, etc;
– Remind worshippers not to attend in person if experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 including fever, cough, shortness of breath or have had close contact with an infected person in the last 14 days;
– Exclude all worshippers noted to have a temperature or are symptomatic on arrival at the place of worship;
– Keep up-to-date record of staffing including contact details and if possible, a full record of attendees at every service to enable contact tracing; and
– Considering the dangers posed by the pandemic, any religious visits to homes by religious clerics should be discouraged.
Mustapha directed all State Governments and Security Agencies to ensure “effective and strict” implementation of the above, noting however that “the level of compliance with these guidelines will continue to be reviewed in due course.”
National Coordinator, Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Dr Sani Aliyu, still maintained that despite the lifting of the restrictions and the above protocols that must be in place at all worship centres, it was still safer for the public to worship at home as the virus is still very much around.
He stated that places of worship that were unable to comply with the measures should not be allowed to operate by Governors, noting that the advisory was issued in the event that members of the public wanted to perform their spiritual needs and it’s impossible to carry it out at home.
What these mean is that the places of worship was reopened in principle, knowing that it would be difficult and expensive for any church to fully comply with the specifications.
To add to the almost impossibility of meeting the conditionalities for reopening worship centres, Lagos State Commissioner for Home Affairs, Prince Anofiu Elegushi, said that churches and mosques in Lagos State are to remain closed as the State is still recording high cases as the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak in the country.
Said Elegushi, “even before the pronouncement by Federal Government, we have been having meetings with the religious leaders, we even had one with Safety Commission, looking at the possibility of reopening of religious houses. We also had one with the leaders of the two faiths and I want to tell you categorically that at that meeting, possibility of reopening religious houses was ruled out totally. They claimed that they cannot take such responsibility of ensuring that only 20 or 50 people are praying behind them.
”Like an Imam said, he doesn’t know what is going on at the back immediately he is leading a prayer. He said if more than 20 or 50 people are staying at his back he is not going to take responsibility for their presence. So, in the meeting, we ruled out in totality the issue of reopening the religious houses until we have a clear coast for us to do so. We all know Lagos is still having more figures. So definitely that will speak to our decision.”
The same scenario would play out as each State government takes decision on reopening of churches and mosques based on prevailing local situations. This means that even though the federal government has declared them opened, local issues arising from the rate of spread of the virus would determine the level of adherence or relaxation of the restriction orders.