Wisconsin churches close their doors, shift virtual again as Omicron spreads

NOW: Wisconsin churches close their doors, shift virtual again as Omicron spreads

WAUWATOSA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Places of worship in Wisconsin are being forced to make tough decisions as the Omicron variant spreads throughout the community.

This week, the Wisconsin Council of Churches issued a recommendation to its 2,000 congregation members that they return to virtual operations for the next four to six weeks.

"For the next few weeks, it's really not safe to be together in person in the way that we'd all like to be," said Rev. Daniel Schultz, community health program director for the Wisconsin Council of Churches.

Wauwatosa Presbyterian Church, a member of the council, has closed its doors at least through the month of January. Rev. Brett Swanson said the church will re-evaluate in a few weeks whether to stay closed in February.

The pandemic forced the church to close for more than a year starting in 2020 and once again, Swanson finds himself preaching to empty pews in 2022.

"It was the right thing to do at the right time. Churches all over Milwaukee County, but also all over the country, are making hard decisions. Having leadership from Wisconsin Council of Churches provided us the opportunity to take advantage of folks who have been thoughtful and forward-facing on what's best for the health of our churches," Swanson said.

Schultz said churches want to be mindful of the strain the Omicron variant is putting on health care workers.

"It also puts a lot of stress on vulnerable people, such as older members of the congregation," he said.

Places of worship have invested time and money in pivoting to virtual settings since the start of the pandemic, but Swanson feels the sacrifice is worth it.

"By going virtual, we can still worship with them and worship together but take away some of the risks," he said.

He knows not everyone in his congregation will be happy to worship once again from YouTube, but he's making a commitment to all his members: "The very first Sunday that we can be together safely, we will."

CBS 58 asked the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which includes 192 parishes in southeast Wisconsin, whether parishes will return to completely virtual operations. Archbishop Jerome Listecki said in a statement: 

"As we continue to learn to live with COVID-19 in our midst, and adjust to the changing variants, I am thankful for our pastors and parish leaders and their diligence in continuing the protocols already in place to help people feel safe while attending Mass. The protocols include clearly designated areas for mask wearing and social distancing, as well as providing hand sanitizer and extra cleaning.

When possible, large parish meetings where social distancing options are not available, are being changed to virtual attendance or postponed for now.

While there has been no outbreak of COVID-19 from Mass attendance, I’d like to encourage people to exercise personal responsibility. Those who feel sick, or who are especially at risk of health complications, should stay home and watch Sunday worship on the many Masses broadcast on TV and live-streamed on social media until they feel comfortable returning to in-person Mass. In those situations, or for those taking care of someone who is sick, Sunday Mass attendance is excused.

Our Sunday worship is a joyful obligation. It is a witness to God as the priority in our lives. By remaining diligent in these ways, we help ensure our parishioners feel safe attending Mass and can continue experiencing the connectedness of our parish communities, which is such a vital part of our lives."

CBS 58 also reached out to Milwaukee-area leaders of several other religions to find out if they also plan to return to completely virtual operations but did not heard back.

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