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Many area churches ease into reopening

When the state’s safer-at-home order was lifted in mid-May, leaders at Grace Baptist Church in Lake Hallie immediately began creating a plan on how they could safely reopen their building and welcome back their congregation.

“We decided to wait until we had all our ducks in a row,” said the Rev. Bruce Schmidt, the church’s pastor. “We wanted to do it safely and for the comfort level of our congregation. What drove us is, ‘if we can open, we should open.’”

The church reopened on May 24, with about 75% of its normal crowd. This past weekend saw another 10% increase. However, the crowd was split in two, as a second service was added to spread out attendance.

“We asked people the first couple of weeks to sign up,” he said. “We put up a signup sheet on our website they could fill out there, or call in.”

Normal attendance is about 200 at Grace Baptist Church.

“We took out about half our chairs,” Schmidt said. “We put them all six feet apart. We took out the tables in our fellowship hall and put in more chairs.”

The church also eliminated a coffee bar and its children’s ministry.

“If someone wants to shake a hand, that is their business. Some people want to wear masks; we aren’t requiring it,” he said.

In a typical service, perhaps six musicians perform at the front of the church. Early COVID-19 research has shown that singing can cause spreading of the virus because more air is expelled from the lungs.

“We have our front row of our seats 25 feet away from them,” he said.

Schmidt said it felt good to have parishioners back.

“Our congregation body life isn’t just important, it is essential,” Schmidt said. “It is that contact, just seeing people. We saw that from our congregation — the joys, the smiles, were just incredible.”

He jokingly added: “Of course, some of our people miss watching it from their living room in their pajamas.”

Calvary Baptist Church in Eau Claire opted to reopen this past Sunday. The Rev. Josh van Gorkom, associate pastor, said on a typical Sunday, the church has 400 in attendance.

“We have constructed our own guidelines,” van Gorkom said. “We have opted to operate at 40% capacity. We had about what we expected, with about 175 in person.”

Reopening was the right decision, van Gorkom said.

“I spent the first 15 minutes with tears going down my face, because it felt so good with people reunited with their faith again,” van Gorkom said. “It was very meaningful, very moving.”

Like at Grace Baptist, Calvary opted to remove rows of seats and set up an overflow room for people who didn’t want to sit too closely to others.

“There are a complete row of chairs, and we are asking different families to sit six feet apart,” van Gorkom said.

The length of the service also was shortened.

“There is less music, less singing, just to be safer,” he said.

Hand-sanitizing stations also have been added and the church is encouraging masks to be worn, but not requiring them.

“After the service, we dismissed people row by row, and encouraged them to go directly to the parking lot,” van Gorkom said.

Calvary Baptist is still livestreaming its service, and also offers a “drive-up” service, where anyone in the parking lot can tune to 97.9 FM and hear it.

“We just feel it is important to have as many options as we can for what they are feeling right now,” van Gorkom said. “We plan to keep these operations through the fall.”

Other churches are still taking small steps toward reopening.

The Diocese of La Crosse has decided “each opening will be a case-by-case basis,” said Jack Felsheim, director of communications and public relations. The diocese has shared a five-page letter with churches that lists recommendations on how to safely reopen.

“It’s best to check with your local parish to find out about times and other details,” Felsheim said. “We will also continue to offer livestream Mass and TV Mass for those who are sick, unable, uncomfortable or at risk.”

Felsheim added that the diocese encourages those ages 65 and older with underlying health conditions to stay home.

Schmidt said he has been fielding calls from other churches this week that have inquired about how they reopened.

“I know some are going to do outdoor services,” Schmidt said. “The floodgates are kind of open.”


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Bright lights over COVID: Communities modify July 4 plans

Independence Day celebrations in Eau Claire and Menomonie are modifying their fireworks shows with the expectation the coronavirus pandemic will still be a concern a month from now.

Eau Claire is planning a shift in location for its July 4 fireworks, moving them from Carson Park to a hill on the edge of downtown.

“We’re moving it to a location where more of the residents will be able to see it,” City Manager Dale Peters said.

Plank Hill, a spot behind Flynn Elementary School that is used for sledding in wintertime, is the proposed site for this year’s fireworks show.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the change of location during its meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

“We think it’s important for the community to have the opportunity for a community celebration,” Peters said. “This has been a challenging several months.”

Though restrictions on businesses and gatherings in place during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic have been eased in recent weeks, next month’s fireworks display is being planned to fit with precautions advised by local health officials. That includes generally discouraging large gatherings because of the potential to spread germs to many people in those situations.

So instead of the usual massive crowds of people in Carson Park and nearby areas, the new fireworks launching spot is meant to encourage watching the aerial entertainment from backyards and sidewalks among small groups of family or friends.

Also, low-altitude fireworks that created a ground display for people gathered at Carson Park in other years will be nixed in favor of only high-altitude ones that can be seen from a greater distance.

The city examined several sites to launch the fireworks and the option of smaller displays at multiple locations, ultimately concluding the best option is the Plank Hill.

There will be street closures close to the launching spot for safety, but also to prevent people from congregating outside of the nearby school or Forest Hill Cemetery, Peters said.

Menomonie officials decided Monday night on a smaller budget for their city’s July 4 fireworks show, but will keep it at the same location.

While the July 4 fireworks show will be again be at Wakanda Park, attendees will be asked to keep distance from each other or consider watching it from their cars or homes.

Budgeted for $3,250 in prior years, the fireworks display will only get $1,250 from the city this time.

The City Council had considered a proposal to give another $2,000 toward the fireworks show, which is put on by the Menomonie Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.

However, the council opted against fully funding the display over worries the money might be needed for unforeseen future costs related to COVID-19.

“I’m against this and what’s budgeted is budgeted,” City Councilman Lee Schwebs said. “With all that’s going on in the world, we don’t need to spend money for the heck of it. I’d rather see the money set aside for emergencies in case we need funds.”

Grocery store chain Festival Foods sponsors the fireworks shows in Eau Claire and Altoona.

Expecting that large gatherings would still be discouraged by public health officials, Altoona decided last month to postpone its Independence Day fireworks show.

“We knew that we wouldn’t be out of the gathering prohibitions, or it would be very unlikely,” City Administrator Michael Golat said.

Fireworks have now been rescheduled for Labor Day weekend at the city’s usual location, Cinder City Park. That celebration will comply with whatever local public health orders are in place at that time, Golat said, including if people are still advised to maintain social distancing.

While Altoona’s fireworks won’t happen close to July 4, Golat pointed out the silver lining that moving the celebration to early September gives area residents another chance to enjoy an evening of watching the sky light up.

“This way people have two opportunities,” he said.

Parker Reed of the The Chippewa Herald contributed to this report.