Masks redux

There’s a growing movement to get people to wear masks at public events. The motivation? Maskless events post a risk to people with certain disabilities, and/or with chronic illnesses, and to their caregivers.

In other words, this is an issue of disabilities rights.

Of course, it’s not just masks. Ideally, all the events that we organize or participate in would be set up to minimize the transmission of infectious diseases. And it’s not just COVID. It’s also about influenza and RSV (and yikes, now there’s even a measles outbreak in Ohio).

Which brings us to “The Public Health Pledge: committing to safer and more inclusive events,” which reads like this:

“I am committed to diversity and inclusion, including people with disabilities, chronic illness, and caregivers, therefore I pledge to only participate in or organize events that have robust Health and Safety policies.

“Events must meet these criteria:
• The event has a Health and Safety policy, and if the policy changes it is only strengthened – never weakened – between the event’s announcement and the event itself.
• The event actively communicates this policy by including it on their website, in the registration flow, and speaker proposal process, discussing the policy regularly during events, and including it everywhere important announcements are shared.
• The event’s policy includes active measures designed to minimize the number of participants who are infected with transmissible diseases like COVID-19, as well as mitigate transmission between participants.”

You can “sign” the pledge online.

A good concrete way to strengthen disability rights.

Fifth shot

I got my fifth COVID shot today, the so-called bivalent booster.

Getting a COVID shot is boring now. But it didn’t used to be.

We got our first shots the day after our age group was eligible. We had to drive an hour to find an appointment. There was an elaborate check-in process. After getting the Pfizer shot, we had to sit down for fifteen minutes until they were certain we weren’t going to pass out or go into anaphylactic shock. Four weeks later, we got the second dose at the same drugstore, going through the same elaborate process. I was ill for two days after the second shot. Then it became a big topic of conversation for the next month: Did you get vaccinated yet? Which vaccine did you get? How long were you sick for afterwards?

We felt invincible for about four months, until the Delta variant hit. Then at last we were eligible for our first booster. This time, we got an appointment at a mass vaccination clinic, held at the San Mateo Event Center, formerly called the county fairgrounds. We waited in a long line of cars while volunteers in fluorescent yellow vests directed us into a big barn. Did we want Pfizer or Moderna? We had heard that you should get the one you didn’t get the first time. So we got Moderna. Then we had to drive into a big parking area while they monitored us to make sure we didn’t pass out. Once again, it was all very dramatic. And I was ill for a day after I got the booster.

For the second booster, I went to the Redwood City medical center where my primary care physician had her office. It was just like getting my annual flu shot. A nurse told me I shouldn’t worry about sitting in the waiting area after getting the shot. I got the shot, left the building, and drove home. My arm hurt for the rest of the day, but I didn’t feel ill.

Today I drove to Braintree to get both my annual flu shot and my third COVID booster. My appointment was at an older, somewhat dingy pharmacy. This time I remembered to wear a short-sleeved shirt. After I got my shot, the pharmacist told me to sit and wait fifteen minutes. I heard the man talking to the pharmacist as he got his shot. “Another shot, I can’t believe it! We’re going to be doing this forever,” he said, in his high querulous tenor voice. She murmured something soothing. “I guess it’s like getting your flu shot every year, isn’t it. And these people who don’t get shots. Can you believe them?!” Another soothing murmur. By this time I had waited five minutes. I decided I wasn’t going to pass out and walked out of the store. There was nothing exciting about any of it.

I still worry a little when I hear about people I know getting COVID. But getting your COVID shot is no longer exciting. It’s just part of the annual routine.

Post-pandemic singing

Dr. Anthony Fauci has declared that we are now “out of the full-blown explosive pandemic phase” of COVID. This doesn’t mean that COVID is gone. It just means that “we’ve now decelerated and transitioned into more of a controlled phase,” according to Fauci.

This tallies with my own observations. COVID is still a threat, but not as dire a threat as it was a few months ago. So over the weekend, I decided to go to a group singing event that would require proof of vaccination for entry.

There were perhaps forty people at this Sacred Harp singing. I found it a little bit scary to be with so many people. (Though I was far more scared walking through airports when we flew to visit Carol’s father back in March — there were many more people in the airports, and anyone who was eating or drinking had their masks off.)

While I did find it to be a little bit scary, I also found it to be exhilarating. I’ve been too isolated during the pandemic. And I’ve done almost no in-person singing — no singing in choirs, no folk music jam sessions, no singing with a quartet, very little Sacred Harp singing. I’m not a particularly good singer, but before the pandemic, singing was my primary social outlet. Saturday’s singing event was definitely good for my mental health.

In this phase of the pandemic — this “more controlled phase,” to use Fauci’s words — we’re going to be balancing the threats from COVID against the threat that isolation poses to our mental health. It’s going to be a difficult balance to strike.

I’ll put a photo of the singing below the fold. But if you get triggered by seeing a bunch of people singing indoors at this point in the pandemic, don’t click through.

Continue reading “Post-pandemic singing”

Reopening

Here in Palo Alto, it feels like people are starting to return to church. It’s not like the pandemic has gone away. Here in Palo Alto, the Omicron surge has died down, but now we’re seeing a slight uptick in cases, probably caused by BA.2. Or caused by the lifting of indoors restrictions on masks. Or caused by hundreds of other random variables that we’re not aware of.

At the same time, we’re also becoming more aware of another public health problem — an increase in mental health issues among teens and children. Teen mental health problems began rising around 2009, but the pandemic prompted even more teen mental health issues. One probable cause: a rise in screen time. More screen time leads to more mental health problems. And the pandemic led to even more screen time.

I feel that our congregations are in a balancing act right now. On the one hand, we want to help control the virus, and we also want to remain accessible to people who are vulnerable to the virus. On the other hand, we know that our in-person programming can support positive mental health outcomes in children and teens. So we need to reopen to support good mental health, and we also need to promote COVID safety.

Right now, the Palo Alto congregation where I serve is reopening as fast as we can, while staying safe. We just figured out how to start offering child care for infants and toddlers once again. As the weather warms up, we’re seeing more preschoolers show up for outdoor play time — we had six preschoolers on campus this past Sunday, the first time we’ve had more than two since the pandemic began. We’re still not up to pre-pandemic attendance, but we’re getting there. And we’re still offering most of our programming outdoors, or in large rooms with small numbers of kids.

Reopening is a lot of work. But I don’t mind. It feels great having more people showing up in person again.

Where we are now with COVID and congregations

I’m watching the case rates in Santa Clara County, where the Palo Alto congregation is located. The 7-day rolling average is over 4,000 — yikes, that’s high. On the other hand, preliminary figures for mortality seem to show a low death rate — probably due in part to the fact that 82.8% of county residents have been fully vaccinated (thought only 58.2% of eligible residents have received boosters). But on the other other hand (that’s three hands, if you’re keeping track), anecdotal evidence from health care professionals says that ICU beds are getting full again, and elective surgeries and procedures that require an overnight stay in the hospital are being postponed.

Obviously, this is not where we hoped to be. But rather than feeling discouraged, I suggest we consider this as another problem in planning. So, how do we plan for next steps in our congregations?

First, just to say the obvious — any plan we make has to be flexible, to account for changing circumstances.

Second, to say something else that’s obvious — we’ve discovered that the big thing that draws many people to UU congregations is the community. Sure, we like the theology, but the big draw is a chance to be a part of a community with shared values. And many people want to get a regular dose of UU community in person.

Third, something else that’s obvious — we’re gaining a pretty good sense of what’s safest, and less safe. It’s safest to do in-person gatherings that are outdoors, distanced (or small groups), and masked. It’s less safe to do indoors events, but some indoors events are still possible in some circumstances. Instead of saying, “Oh we can’t do what we used to do, waaah!” we probably need to start saying, “Gee, what are our present options for fun and engaging communal events?”

So here’s one obvious thing I believe we should be doing: we should be planning outdoors events. Whatever that might be: outdoors worship services, outdoors small group meetings, outdoors classes. (And I know what those of you are going to say who live where winters are really cold — you’re going to say this doesn’t apply to you. Well, my-sister-the-children’s-librarian, who lives and works in Massachusetts, is doing outdoors story time for kids in the winter; sure, her attendance is lower, but people still show up.) It’s true that not everyone in your congregation is going to come to outdoors events, but I suspect enough people are hungry for in-person interaction that it’s worth doing.

Another thing I believe we have to do: start planning like COVID is not going away. I would love it if COVID suddenly decided to go away next month. But it now looks like there’s a good chance that COVID is going to become endemic. If it has become endemic, then we’re going to have to learn to live with it. So maybe we should start thinking about one or more of the following: requiring proof of vaccination; think about shorter indoor worship services (e.g., 45 min., to limit time spent indoors); adding more worship services (so you can have more smaller indoors services); creating permanent spaces for outdoor programs where possible; improving ventilation in indoor spaces; and/or many other things.

Another obvious thing we should do: for our online offerings, keep improving community interaction. I’ve been noticing that many people are getting better at participating in online events — video conferencing is a learned skill. Similarly, I believe many of us are getting better at facilitating online communal interactions. In my own case, I’ve become much better at teaching online, and at facilitating online meetings — again, these are learned skills. As we continue to get better at participating in and leading online events, one of our goals should be improving community interaction.

One final thing I believe we should be doing: we should go easy on ourselves. Yes, the pandemic is probably going to kill off some UU congregations; but if you start thinking that way, you’re liable to either get tense and stressed out, or sad and filled with grief, neither of which is going to help keep your congregation going. Of course, getting overwhelmed and doing nothing is also not helpful; my point here is that we do need to do something, we just don’t need to be overachievers. My primary rule for congregational life has always been: if it’s not fun, let’s not do it. This still holds true during the pandemic!

I’m actually feeling pretty positive about congregational life in the immediate future. Yes it’s different from what I’m used to, and yes it’s hard to let go of a lifetime of past expectations, and yes change is annoying and difficult. But new possibilities are opening up, and I’m actually feeling quite positive about the future of our congregations.

The UU year in review: 2021

Wow. It’s been a year of change. As 2021 winds down, I’ll briefly summarize the changes I’ve seen in Unitarian Universalist congregations — some positive, some not so positive, some neutral.

Not-so-positive

(A) Enrollments of children and teens appear to be falling precipitously. We don’t yet have official numbers from the year-end certification count, but I’m estimating declines of 33% to 100% across the board.

(B) Adult membership also appears to be falling in most congregations, though the declines are not as steep.

(C) There appear to be many fewer newcomers in most congregations. The lack of newcomers probably accounts for about half of the decline in adult membership. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations have an annual turnover rate of 10-25% (due to moving away, death, lack of interest, etc.), and depend on a steady stream of newcomers to maintain stable membership.

(D) From what I can tell, most congregations saw a decline in revenues this year. The decline can be attributed to the general decline in membership, loss of other revenue streams such as rentals, and the end of the federal Payroll Protection Plan.

(E) I’d say that more peripheral people have gotten out of the habit of occasional participation in the life of the congregation. It’s still too soon to know if they’ll ever come back, but I’m not hopeful.

(F) This past year saw an epidemic of clergy resignations. In the spring, the Unitarian Universalist Association was begging ministers to come out of retirement to fill all the interim ministry positions. By all accounts, this past year saw a shortage of ministers.

Neutral

(G) I expected more resignations by other (non-clergy) paid staffers in UU congregations this past year. But so far I’m not seeing evidence that that happened. This may be because so many other paid staffers are part timers, meaning they weren’t exposed to as much stress as full-time ministers. Or it could be that the resignations happened, but they’ve been less visible than minister resignations.

Positive

(H) Online adult religious education classes have proved to be more popular than in-person classes in some congregations. The convenience of attending a class while sitting comfortably at home turns out to be quite attractive to many.

(I) Moving online apparently has worked for many (not all) support groups, again due to the convenience.

(J) Congregations have adopted digital giving tools, to the pleasure of most people under the age of 50.

(K) Most Unitarian Universalist congregations have developed good to excellent online services. Online services have proved so successful that most of the congregations I know of plan to continue multi-platform services (i.e., combined online and in-person services) after the pandemic is over.

(L) Online does not work for everything. And most Unitarian Universalist congregations have developed safe ways of having at least some in-person programs.

Summary

In a time of great change, it’s easy to get despondent, just because change can be so disorienting. But I have to say I’m feeling mostly optimistic. In a follow-up post, I’ll have more to say about how I believe we can address the not-so-positive changes productively.

But the positive aspects of this year of change are very positive. Even though our primary “product” continues to be in-person connections, it’s also good to be able to expand the ways we can connect with our congregations, by adding multi-platform services, online classes, and digital giving.

Scrooge would have loved omicron

Scrooge famously said: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”

The omicron strain of COVID-19 is acting like Scrooge. If you go wish your family ‘Merry Christmas’ in person, you could wind up with omicron in your lungs. Bah humbug.

A month ago, we started planning in-person services for Christmas Eve. But as of today, it looks like we’re going to be moving to online-only for Christmas Eve. Omicron is present here in Santa Clara County. Omicron doubles every 2-4 days (depending on who you listen to). Vaccinated and boostered people are getting omicron. Everyone is expecting a major surge by mid-January. So in-person indoors meetings are most definitely Not A Good Idea. Bah humbug indeed.

I had been looking forward to seeing people in person on Christmas Eve — especially college students, many of whom come home for winter breaks. But honestly I’m relieved that we’re not going to have in-person services. I admit it — I don’t like the looks of omicron.

So — see you online….

Noted without comment

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn now lives in the Bay Area, where he attends the Lighthouse Church in San Francisco, and plays in the worship band. According to a recent news article — about how he recently recorded four songs that will benefit the church’s homeless ministries — being a Christian in the U.S. may require apology:

“While he doesn’t have ‘any hesitation’ identifying as a Christian, [Cockburn] is starting to wonder if that’s such a good thing to say in public in the U.S. these days. If someone asks if he’s a Christian, he still says, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian, but I got vaccinated.'”

COVID’s impact on health care providers

The Wild Hunt, a pagan news blog, has a good post on how health care providers are dealing with the current COVID surge: “Pagan health providers respond to the Delta variant surge.” The author, Stacy Psaros, interviews several nurses who say things like, “You have healthcare workers being driven out of the industry due to burnout, physical and emotional stress of the situation.” Psaros also includes a few facts about how the current surge is different, including that in the week ending August 19, 22.4% of the weekly reported COVID cases were children, according to the American Pediatric Association.

Towards the end of the article, Psaros spends too much time quoting a nurse who doesn’t believe in vaccine mandates for health care providers and doesn’t think the experts are to be trusted — so much so that the editors of The Wild Hunt had to insert a disclaimer refuting some of this interviewee’s more ridiculous assertions. Sadly, it sounds like Psaros agrees with this interviewee, while not really understanding how this kind of libertarianism actually contributes to the health care provider burnout she’s reporting on. Nevertheless, despite this serious flaw, the article is worth reading so you can hear from some health care providers about what they’re experiencing.

People

I’ve been at a religious education conference for most of a week now. It has been very nice to be able to talk with colleagues in person, face-to-face. But it’s also exhausting. I talk with people for an hour over breakfast, then teach a class where we spend a lot of time talking, then talk for an hour over lunch, and often for another hour after lunch — and then I’m ready for a two-hour nap.

Others at the conference are having similar experiences. It’s really good to be able to be in a big group of people for the first time since March, 2020, but it’s also really tiring.