Reopening Indiana: Churches cautiously hold first in-person services Sunday amid COVID-19 crisis

VALPARAISO, Ind. (WLS) -- It's the first Sunday that some churches in Indiana can have in-person services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leaders are urging congregations to take precautions, as the state reported 1,362 deaths and more than 23,000 COVID-19 cases statewide Saturday.

Gov. Eric Holcomb's updated executive order limits social gatherings to 25 people or fewer, but houses of worship like Heartland Christian Center in Valparaiso are now allowed to have as many people as social distancing allows.

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The church posted video of preparations on its Facebook page. It shows members disinfecting the inside of the church sanctuary, as well as chairs set up for worshipers that are 6 feet apart to comply with state health guidelines concerning social distancing.

"We're not foolish. It's not business as usual," lead Pastor Dr. Phil Willingham said. "We won't be shaking hands and hugging each other. We've got social distancing happening. We're in the faithful mindset."

Worshippers have not gathered in person since March but Sunday morning that changed. Heartland planned for two services Sunday morning, at 8:15 and 9:45 a.m.

"I think people are excited to get back out again," Willingham said. "I think at some point, the government (is) recognizing ... people want their opportunity to make choices again."

"There's something you can't describe about how the presence of the Lord feels," said Heartland worshiper Terry Keelen.

For now, other major church groups in Indiana, including the Diocese of Gary, are holding off on holding public services or masses.

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Early Sunday, Heartland Christian's lead pastor said there will be greeters holding open doors so they won't be touched as congregants enter, and a giant screen will still be displaying the service outside for those who prefer to drive up. The service is also available online.

Church leaders removed about 600 seats from the 1,000-seat auditorium to enable better social distancing, but Heartland was not requiring face masks Sunday, Willingham said. And few were visible among churchgoers walking into the building Sunday morning.

"If you want to wear a face mask you absolutely can, we're not going to require that. It's just kind of awkward for some people. Even speaking, it would be difficult to speak for 45 minutes with a mask on. It's just one of those things where I think it's personal responsibility," he said.

Churches like Heartland will likely set the tone for other places of worship throughout the state, as COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift.

About 1,500 people make up Heartland's congregation, and the church sees roughly 650 on a typical Sunday; although, it did not appear like that many showed up Sunday morning.

At one point, a woman drove by and yelled from her car that people should go home, apparently displeased with the gathering.
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