While BCA leaders and ministers raised several issues and concerns over reopening temples and churches at a special June 19 webinar, one message was clear: Protect the minister and the Sangha — above all else — in the process.
The BCA held the meeting in light of the continuing decline this year in COVID-19 deaths, infections and hospitalizations in the United States, and the concurrent rise in the vaccination rate among Americans. Since the June meeting, however, the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths has risen dramatically because of the Delta variant, primarily from the unvaccinated. But the overall statistics are still far lower than the peak period in January.
As of July 22, 35 percent of U.S. counties are experiencing high levels of transmission, according to the CDC COVID-19 data tracker. COVID-19 cases are on the rise in nearly 90 percent of U.S. jurisdictions, and outbreaks are being reported in parts of the country that have low vaccination rates.
As of July 22, about 187.2 million people, or 56.4 percent of the total U.S. population, have received at least one dose of vaccine and about 162.2 million people, or 48.8 percent of the total U.S. population, have been fully vaccinated. Tragically, COVID-19 has killed more than 607,000 people now in the United States.
The BCA does not have a uniform policy addressing reopenings — that decision is left up to each individual temple and church which must adhere to the myriad of unique COVID-19 regulations, ordinances and emergency orders within its particular city, county and state.
In-Person Services Held
Indeed, some temples and churches have already begun resuming in-person services, and the list is expected to grow. Orange County Buddhist Church, Ekoji Buddhist Temple, Buddhist Church of Sacramento and the Midwest Buddhist Temple have recently held in-person services.
But the vast majority of temples and churches remain closed for in-person services. Some, including the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, are planning to reopen this fall.
The webinar led off with a slide show by BCA Vice President Glenn Inanaga and BCA President-Elect Terri Omori about what OCBC and Vista Buddhist Temple have done to prepare for reopening, and to provide a set of guidelines that other temples and churches would be able to modify and implement.
“Obviously, it’s about ensuring the safety and security of our ministers and our Sangha,” Inanaga said.
Their wide-ranging presentation covered several topics including: COVID-19’s history, statistics, trends and variants, particularly the worrisome Delta variant; California’s colored tier of restrictions; criteria OCBC used to establish a Risk Management Committee; policies covering affiliated organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts that use OCBC; steps to provide proper ventilation; having face masks, hand sanitizers and temperature checks at the Hondo; and creating a social project to welcome back the Sangha. OCBC recently installed a project of origami cranes — folded by Dharma School students — in the Hondo atrium.
“These are guidelines only — the BCA is not dictating that temples and churches must reopen,” said Inanaga, who is also chair of OCBC’s Risk Management Committee. “But we are recognizing that there is a demand for reopening and we’re providing the source and the guidelines that hopefully you’ll be able to adapt for yourself.”
Inanaga advised creating a Risk Management Team “that really specializes in the issue at hand and avoids the politics of the situation” and focuses on “science, exposure mitigation, and not just doing what everyone else was doing.”
Omori said the Vista temple reopening was done in phases, beginning with allowing essential activities for some affiliated organizations. For example, if Dharma School teachers would need to work on lessons, they could come in for an hour to prepare their supplies. No more than six Sangha members would be allowed at any one time.
OCBC decided to reopen for in-person services in June, and Inanaga stressed the need to be flexible with policies.
“We have to be realistic,” he said. “Some of our members have not seen each other or have not met each other for the last 18 months. Therefore, the first thing they want to do is to get close to talk to each other. It’s very, very challenging. I don’t think our job is really to police that per se or to tell people they can or cannot do that.”
The meeting also included: statements by BCA Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada and Ministers Association Chair Rev. Harry Bridge on the current ministerial shortage; a presentation by Michael Tanaka about resuming in-person services at the Las Vegas Sangha since June 2020; comments by BCA President Kent Matsuda; and a question-and-answer session.
A Call for Caution
Speaking on behalf of the BCA ministers, Rev. Bridge reiterated “what’s already been said in keeping the safety of your minister, your members, your visitors as your top priority.
“There may be pressure from outside sources like funeral homes (to hold memorial services in the Hondo),” he said. “We don’t have to give into that pressure necessarily. Don’t feel like you have to do what someplace else is doing. I think you really want to do it in a way that your temple is comfortable with your minister … your minister may be going to a room filled with 200 people and you really need to keep on top of that and not let a minister feel pressured into that. Each minister is different in terms of vulnerability and age.”
Rev. Bridge stated his concerns about the ministerial shortage affecting the BCA, first raised at the National Board meeting in June. The BCA currently has 35 full-time Kaikyoshi ministers covering its 58 temples and churches and most ministers are responsible for several temples. The ministers are tasked with preparing online Dharma messages and Sunday services, and some also teach online classes with IBS.
“Just be aware of this potential increased workload for your minister,” he said. “Please work together, work with your minister, work with your district temples.”
In addition, Rev. Bridge urged that, for the time being, temples have only the minister chanting and that there be no singing of gathas.
Michael Tanaka, a critical care nurse and a Ministers Assistant at the Las Vegas Sangha, spoke about the temple holding hybrid services since June 2020 and the precautions taken by the Sangha.
On Saturday, the day before the Sunday service, Sangha members would clean and sanitize the building, and limited attendance at 25 percent capacity. Attendees were required to fill out a form about their COVID-19 status. Temperature checks were required, hand sanitizers were available, face masks were mandatory and people had to socially distance six feet apart.
As for food items, everything had to be individually wrapped and people couldn’t eat inside — they had to have their snacks outside in the parking lot. Beginning in June 2021, the Las Vegas Sangha is now 100 percent open, without the social distancing rules. Face masks are still required for those who are unvaccinated. For its Sunday services, held twice a month, Las Vegas usually attracts about 30 people, Tanaka said.
“The procedure we put in place was very effective,” Tanaka said. “How do we know that? Because no one person came down with COVID.”
BCA President Kent Matsuda, who is a physician, vouched for the effectiveness of wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19.
“I’ve had situations where I’ve had patients in an examination room who subsequently turned out to have COVID-19,” he said. “And that person was wearing a mask and I was wearing a mask, and even though we know the COVID-19 virus can penetrate these surgical masks, at least that protected me from getting COVID-19.”
Issue of Restrooms
Matsuda brought up the issue of temple restrooms and said temples may have to set a policy on restroom use. He noted that most BCA temples he’s visited have small restrooms.
“You may go all the way from saying, ‘Well, if people need to use the restroom, they can go ahead to use the restroom’ or having a system where only one individual or one family is allowed in at a time,” he said.
Other related issues, he said, have to do with disposing of toilet seat covers, which can potentially clog pipes, sanitizing “high touch areas” like toilet handles, and determining how often a restroom should be cleaned during a service or event.
Matsuda also addressed a question about unvaccinated Sangha members.
“Temples can establish whatever guidelines that they feel is the most prudent and the safest,” he said, saying Pasadena Buddhist Temple’s plan of having an unvaccinated section for services is a good idea. “At the very minimum, I think you would want to have social distancing and the person wearing a mask.”
Inanaga spoke about the importance of the BCA’s reputation in complying with local, county, state and federal laws on COVID-19.
“It’s not just legal liability risks that we should watch out for,” he said. “It’s also reputational risk, and I think the ability for our members to trust the BCA, trust our local individual temple, is really based on this idea of having safety and security in mind.”
In conclusion, Matsuda addressed the priorities the temples and churches should consider before reopening.
“One of the key points that we really want to drive home is that your temple needs to have a reopening committee and they need to consider what works best for your Sangha, what works best for your minister, what works best for your Ministers Assistant,” he said.
“Sometimes the decisions you make may not be popular, and sometimes you may have to take the heat for things that protect your minister, so you have to be a little strong and resist the urge to do away with all the restrictions.”