Many have stayed away after return to in-person services in early July

In order to prevent any unintentional strain on the region’s healthcare system, a Johnson City church that regularly saw more than 1,000 people on Sunday before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will return to online-only services on Aug. 2.

“Decisions like this are really hard,” said Matt Murphy, the lead pastor at Grace Fellowship Church. “There’s not a manual for how to navigate a pandemic in 2020 for any of us, but what we’re trying to do is pray and depend on God and also seek the wisdom of our elders and local health experts and then make the best decision we can.”

On July 22, Ballad Health reported 70 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and another 30 patients under investigation for the illness. Grace Fellowship Church made the decision to switch to online services the next day, communicating its decision to the congregation that upcoming Sunday.

“What we began to realize was our local hospitals were beginning to feel stressed,” Murphy said.

On July 31, Ballad Health reported having 88 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at its facilities and 11 under investigation. 18 patients are in the ICU and 12 are on ventilators.

Before COVID-19, Murphy said the church typically saw about 1,800 adults and children on campus on Sunday and upward of 3,000 on holidays like Easter or Christmas.

The church initially transitioned to online-only services on March 15. At that time, leaders didn’t want to put members of its congregation at risk of infection — especially attendees who were more vulnerable to serious illness like the elderly or those with pre-existing health issues.

Murphy estimated the church went more than a dozen Sundays online before ultimately deciding to resume in-person services on July 5 with precautions.

Those safeguards included screening attendees for symptoms and encouraging masks at services. Masks were made available at every entrance to the facility and were then required after the Washington County mask mandate went into effect on July 14.

The church also set up an online RSVP system for services to ensure there weren’t more than 250 attendees in the church’s approximately 1,200-seat auditorium at one time, which helped facilitate social distancing. Families were required to sit six feet apart, and the church used digital bulletins and removed pens and seat-back materials to reduce frequently touched items.

The church continued to provide an online video of the service and also streamed it for attendees in another auditorium.

“One of the things we learned was that a lot of folks in our church simply weren’t ready yet to come back onsite and that online was actually really working for them,” he said.

On July 5, Murphy estimated the church had no more than 15% of its congregation in attendance.

“For those folks who came here, the experience onsite was really meaningful and positive,” Murphy said, “but again 85% of our church was basically telling us — you know you vote with your feet — they were just saying, ‘We’re not quite ready yet,’ and I understand that.”

Although the church has temporarily halted onsite Sunday worship and transitioned to online-only, Murphy said it is still hosting smaller groups and gatherings onsite with precautions.

Murphy said the church has learned that a couple members of its congregation have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past couple weeks, but he said the church doesn’t believe it has contributed to the spread of COVID-19 through its gatherings.

“I believe that firmly,” Murphy said, “so we didn’t push pause on onsite gatherings because we were part of the problem. It was more an act of solidarity with the community.”

Press Staff Writer Jonathan Roberts contributed reporting.