Leaders recommend suspending worship gatherings and other large events; staff are working from home; UUA events in the next month have been moved online or canceled.
The UUA staff building at 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston is closed to the public and staff are working remotely as the city responds to the spread of COVID-19. The unoccupied chapel and largest meeting room is shown here in a file photo. (© 2014 Ganesh Ramachandran/Goody Clancy)
From the editors, 3/13/20: This article now includes updated guidelines distributed on March 12.
In ongoing efforts to promote public safety during the COVID-19 outbreak, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is requiring all staff in its Boston office to work from home until further notice. UUA events and meetings scheduled during March and early April have been canceled or moved online. The UUA is also encouraging congregations and groups to suspend in-person gatherings of more than twenty-five people, even if public health officials have not yet announced positive tests for COVID-19 in their areas. [When this article was first published on March 11, the UUA administration was recommending suspending gatherings “in areas with COVID-19 outbreaks.”]
The annual Finding Our Way Home retreat for religious professionals of color, which had been scheduled for March 18–21 in Long Beach, California, has been canceled, with some content moving online. The March 25–29 meeting of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which was scheduled to take place in Boston, will take place virtually instead. Decisions about UUA events later in the spring have not yet been made, and General Assembly 2020, scheduled for June 24–28 in Providence, Rhode Island, is proceeding as planned, said Carey McDonald, the UUA’s executive vice president.
Despite the fact that staff will not be working from the Boston office, the UUA will continue to provide all services, including answering phone calls and email and fulfilling orders at the bookstore. “We are open for business and answering our phones and email and doing our best to serve our mission of equipping congregations and leaders even as we transition to virtual operations,” said McDonald. About half of UUA employees nationwide, not counting Beacon Press and the Boston building operations staff, already work remotely, so making the transition to a fully offsite staff took just a couple of days. “We were prepared,” McDonald said.
As for regional and national staff who work with congregations in person, many meetings are being moved to virtual meetings and webinars to limit travel, McDonald said, and staff is also directing congregations to online resources.
“I’m really proud of our staff for mobilizing so quickly, and our hearts are with our faith leaders across the country as they grapple with this very real challenge in their communities,” he said. A resource guide for responding to COVID-19 is being updated on UUA.org, along with other pandemic resources.
Instead of the term “social distancing,” which is used by some to describe the situation of people staying at home rather than congregating, “we prefer to think of it as community care, and how we can be in relationship with each other even if we can’t be in the same room,” McDonald said. “This is a time when we need more ministry and connection with each other, not less; it just may need to take a different form.”
McDonald said on March 10 that the UUA is now discouraging non-essential in-person gatherings of more than twenty-five people in areas impacted by COVID-19, which includes suspending congregational worship services. Updated 3/13/20: On March 12 UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray sent updated recommendations to congregational leaders, urging all groups to suspend in-person gatherings even in areas without reported outbreaks.
“We have heard from many of you that conditions worsen each day, that recommendations from public health officials are inconsistent and vague, and there is insufficient testing to determine the actual level of transmission,” Frederick-Gray explained March 12. “We believe it is our moral obligation to follow the guidance of health professionals who recommend early action even before cases have been confirmed in an area because it is most important to protect public health and the most vulnerable people in our communities.”
People at high risk include those over 60 and anyone with underlying health or respiratory issues.
“The UUA will be supporting congregations in finding new ways to minister and offer connection and worship in this time, in ways that counteract isolation and stigma,” McDonald said. He urged congregational leaders to stay in touch with regional and national UUA staff and to keep the lines of communication open. He also said it is “absolutely critical” for people to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health officials with regard to COVID-19.
UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray is encouraging UUs to be responsible and to promote education about the virus without becoming consumed by anxiety. Since COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China, there have been reported incidents of racism against Chinese and Chinese-Americans, which she urges UUs to push back against. “Our response to COVID-19 needs to be grounded in our values and principles. We do indeed live in an interconnected web of existence, and at this time we are being asked to take our care and responsibility for the web more seriously.”
The decision for Boston staff to work from home was implemented on Monday, March 9, in the face of increasing numbers of cases of COVID-19 around the world and in the Boston area. As of March 10 COVID-19 had claimed at least 4,200 lives worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the illness.
As of March 10, many Boston-area colleges and universities had canceled or limited in-person classes, including Harvard University and MIT, in order to try to contain the spread of illness.
“It’s a commitment of our values to tend to the wellbeing of our faith community and the wider community and to be mindful of who’s at risk in a crisis like this,” said McDonald, who noted that the insufficient supply of tests for COVID-19 is hindering efforts to contain it. “This virus is spreading at a rate where we need to think about public health and how we can do our part to help slow the spread of disease so that public health officials and medical personnel can focus on treating people most at risk.”
Even though certain employees, such as building operations staff, are needed in the Boston office, “it lowers their risk to not have to be around as many people in the office or to have to take public transport,” instead driving to work, McDonald said. As for hourly employees, the UUA is ensuring they are not affected financially by the decision because it is not cutting anyone’s hours, he added.
Frederick-Gray has canceled her travel plans for the near future, including a trip to the Pacific Northwest, McDonald said, because she recognizes that drawing crowds and traveling from community to community is a risk to public health.
Since the UUA is currently focusing on meetings scheduled for March and April, it has not yet determined whether GA 2020 in June will be canceled or changed to a virtual meeting, but McDonald said, “We are really hoping we can proceed with GA, because after events get canceled in the spring, people will really want to get together.”
“It’s all moving fast, we are really trying to stay on top of it, and we are encouraging everyone to use abundant caution, stay in communication, and care for one another,” McDonald said. McDonald also noted that the UUA will continue to monitor the situation closely and be in communication as things change.
Updated 3/13/20: This article now incorporates recommendations issued by the UUA after the article was first published on March 11. The original article quoted UUA officials’ recommendations that congregations and groups suspend in-person gatherings of twenty-five or more people, including worship services, in areas with COVID-19 outbreaks. On March 12, the UUA broadened its recommendation, urging all congregations and groups to suspend in-person gatherings, even if tests have not been conducted or reported in their areas.
The original article included the following rationale: “[UUA Executive Vice President Carey McDonald] said congregations should err on the side of caution and make decisions based on recommendations from local public health officials, mindful of the risk factors present in staff and membership and whether there are other closures in the area.” This statement has been replaced by quotes from UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray’s March 12 letter to congregational leaders. Click here to return to the modified paragraph.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.