Minister’s Column May 2021

Dear Ones,

When is UUS:E going to reopen? I’m hearing this question from UUS:E members and friends with increasing frequency. Given that more and more people are getting vaccinated and, thus, feeling safer with in-person gatherings; and given that the state has granted houses of worship significant leeway to reopen for worship and other activities, the question is completely understandable. When are we going to reopen?

At this moment, I don’t have a solid answer to the question, other than to say we are diligently working on it. (Unsatisfying, I know!) Who is working on it? The primary entity within UUS:E that is tracking pandemic data, researching safety measures, studying the UUA guidance, studying the state guidance, and making recommendations to the Policy Board, is our Emergency Preparedness Team or EPT. Cressy Goodwin facilitates this team. EPT members include Sue McMillen, Bill Graver, Christina Bailey, Peter Marotto, Annie Gentile, Jane Osborn, Gina Campellone, and myself. Like virtually all UUS:E committees, anyone can participate. If interested, please feel free to contact me. Since late February we’ve been meeting on an almost weekly basis to formulate a reopening plan. I can assure you that creating a safe, data-driven plan grounded in our UU principles is no easy task.

Most recently, the EPT drafted a revision of the UUS:E policy on outdoor gatherings on church grounds. In short, we recommended allowing gatherings up to 75 people (with masks and social distancing). The Policy Board adopted this revision at its April 8 meeting. You can read the revised policy near the end of this document: Revised Policy for Holding Outdoor Gatherings

What about indoor gatherings? Here’s what we know:

First, science. We will base the timing of our return to indoor gatherings on five statewide public health metrics. These metrics include: the percent of the population that is fully vaccinated; the ratio of new COVID cases each day per 100,000 people; the infection rate; the test positivity rate; and the percentage of hospital ICU beds occupied by COVID patients. Our primary source for tracking these metrics is the Covid Act Now website ( As I write in mid-April, we have not yet determined levels for these metrics that will be acceptable for us, nor the relative weight we will attach to each one. We do expect to make a recommendation on acceptable levels and the relative importance of each metric to the Policy Board at its May 13 meeting.

Second, physical plant. We now know that the ventilation in our meeting house is insufficient to prevent easy transmission of airborne pathogens. This is especially evident in our garden level classrooms and small office spaces. Currently, the UUS:E Buildings and Grounds Committee is researching options for improving ventilation. The EPT will likely recommend that full reopening must wait until upgrades are completed. We will share a project timeline as soon as we have one.

Third, inclusivity. Although many members of our congregation have received vaccinations and are feeling more comfortable in public spaces, children under 16 do not yet have access to any vaccine and likely won’t until the fall of 2021 or later. Yes, many of them are attending school in person despite not being vaccinated, but there are also a variety of risks associated with such attendance. Furthermore, UUS:E’s religious education program for children cannot be easily compared to the typical public school. We don’t have adequate space to maintain social distancing during class time, and the majority of our educational activities emphasize group work. While we may not wait to reopen until all children can be vaccinated, we definitely will not reopen without a clear understanding of, and plan to mitigate, the risks associated with the lack of vaccines for children.

Fourth, accessibility. The Unitarian Universalist Association strongly recommends that all congregations transition to a congregational life model known as “multi-platform” or “hybrid” church. In short, this means that every program we offer ought to be accessible in both in-person and virtual formats. This recommendation isn’t surprising, but to implement it well, we will need to invest in new technologies and training. Since we’re not entirely sure what technology we need to conduct hybrid church, we certainly won’t hold up reopening based on a lack of sufficient technology. However, we will do our best to make the necessary investments as soon as possible, so that we can be as inclusive and accessible as possible once we begin reopening.

Finally, patience. Whenever and however we reopen, we know it will be a slow process with many “baby steps.” We will not all come back at once. We will be strict, especially at first, in our protocols around wearing masks, social distancing, and hand washing. We will likely tie our loosening of restrictions to ongoing improvement in the public health metrics I cited above. I realize that for some of you—especially those who are ready for church in person—this is not the column you wanted to read. You have been extraordinarily patient with, and supportive of, your staff and volunteer leadership through the course of the pandemic. I am now asking for that patience and support to continue as we craft our plans for a reopening that is guided by science, safe, and inclusive. As always, if you wish to speak more about this, you are welcome to contact me or any member of the UUS:E Emergency Preparedness Team.

With love,

—Rev. Josh

Rev. Joshua Pawelek