COVID-19 Update #17

Dear all,

Restrictions in NSW from 23 July – an update

Further to our Update #16 last Friday, we have received a number of questions and queries on the latest legislation, many of which we hope to address in this Update.

To help those interested in reading the latest Public Health Order (No 4) (“PHO”) as amended on 23 July 2020, we have produced an engrossed copy, which combines the PHO released on 16 July 2020 with the amendments released on 23 July 2020. This can be downloaded here.  Please note that this copy is our best attempt to produce an easy to read document.  Don’t hesitate to highlight any errors or ask us any questions on the PHO – we are happy to assist you.

This Update should be read in conjunction with Update #16, although we have repeated some of Update #16 for ease of referral.

1. COVID-19 Safety Plan for Places of Worship

(a) Do all churches need to register a Safety Plan or only those open to the public?

Following review of the latest Public Health Order (“PHO”) and Safety Plan for Places of Worship, we believe that all churches, irrespective of whether they have opened for religious services or not, should prepare and register a Safety Plan with NSW Health.

The reason for this advice is due to most churches being open at least for staff and volunteers although they may not be open to the public (for example, for livestreaming).  While many of the actions identified in the Safety Plan may simply confirm the church is closed to the public, there are still several of the sections in the Safety Plan that relate to staff and volunteers working in the premises.

If a church does not have physical property and church services are conducted in a school, for example, we understand that the school will require you to complete and register a Safety Plan before you return to church services.  In this sense, you are the external group that will be expected to complete and register a Safety Plan before you occupy the premises no different to us asking for such plans from users of our church premises and halls.  If you believe this is not the case, please contact us.

Please note that you may need to update your church’s Safety Plan in the future as restrictions and advice changes.  If your church has already registered as a COVID Safe business online and you update your safety plan, you do not need to register again.

Details of what is required and how to register your Safety Plan can be found at: https://www.nsw.gov.au/covid-19/covid-safe-businesses#industries.

(b) Is the Safety Plan lodged with government or Church Offices?

The Safety Plan can be completed and registered by the Minister, Session Clerk or indeed whoever else has been informally delegated with the responsibility to complete it.  No formal authorisation is required from Session, the Committee of Management or the General Office.  Although, the person who completes the Safety Plan should collaborate with Session and/or Committee of Management to ensure that the stipulations made in the Safety Plan can be adhered-to by your congregation.

When it is completed, please register that you have a Safety Plan at Register your business as COVID Safe | NSW Government.

You do not need to lodge a physical copy of the Safety Plan with NSW Health or with Church Offices.  You only need to retain it for inspection by an authorised officer of the NSW Government or a police officer as requested.

Please ensure that all external groups using church premises have registered their Safety Plan with NSW Health, and retain copies for inspection.

Churches with multiple sites will need to prepare and register a Safety Plan for each site.

(c) What are the updated requirements for keeping records?

The latest Public Health Order amendments include the new requirement to record the time at which the person entered the premises.

NSW Health guidelines are summarised below:

  • Keep a record of name and a mobile number or email address for all staff, volunteers, visitors and contractors, and the time they entered the church premises, for a period of at least 28 days.
  • For households, one contact is sufficient to support contact tracing.  Ensure records are used only for the purposes of tracing COVID-19 infections and are stored confidentially and securely.
  • Encourage congregants and church staff to be aware of the COVIDSafe app and its benefits to support contact tracing if required.

2. Maximum number of people in Places of Worship

(a) Are those leading the church service excluded from the maximum number?

Yes.

From 23 July 2020, capacity at places of worship must not exceed 100 people, or one person per four (4) square metres of space (excluding staff), whichever is the lesser.

Clause 4 ‘Interpretation generally’ of the PHO states “(1) In calculating both the space available for each person on any premises and the number of persons on the premises, the following persons are not to be included in any calculations— (a) any person engaged in work on the premises”. 

Work includes work undertaken by volunteers.  The Safety Plan confirms this under Physical distancing: “Capacity must not exceed 100 people, or one visitor per 4 square metres of space (excluding staff), whichever is the lesser”.  Staff also includes volunteers.

Accordingly, church staff and volunteers involved in leading church services are not included in these maximum numbers, but care should be exercised so that we do not seek to take advantage of this exemption by swelling the numbers of ‘workers’ to conduct a service.

(b) Is the maximum number applied to each room in the church building or for the whole building?

We believe for the whole building.

Clause 3(2) of the PHO defines Place of Worship as meaning “a building or place used for the purpose of religious worship by a congregation or religious group”. 

NSW Health in its website https://www.nsw.gov.au/covid-19/what-you-can-and-cant-do-under-rules#religious-gatherings-and-places-of-worship states “the maximum applies to the whole of the venue, even where men and women worship in separate areas.” 

The view we expressed in Update #16 that “the maximum number applies to separate buildings, so you could have 100 people in the church building and up to 100 children in the hall at the same time” relies on the use of the term “building” in the definition. 

As we note in Update #16, the main issue for NSW Health is that there are measures in place to prevent intermingling of groups of maximum numbers and that rigorous contact details are recorded.

In summary, we believe that the maximum can be applied to separate buildings but not to separate rooms within the one building, subject at all times to people (including children) not intermingling between the buildings before or after the church service.

(c) Weddings

The maximum number of people who may attend a wedding or a gathering following a wedding service cannot be greater than 150 people subject to the 4 square metre rule and registration as a COVID-Safe business.

However, if the wedding takes place in a church (i.e. a Place of Worship), the number of people attending must not exceed 100 people, subject to the 4 square metre rule.

This maximum excludes staff and volunteers leading or helping in the conduct of the wedding who are not ‘guests’ of the wedding.

3. Use of church rooms or halls by groups

(a) What are the rules for external groups using our church hall?

External groups can continue to use church premises subject to the number of people in the building not exceeding one person per 4 square metres of floor space or 100 persons (excluding staff), whichever is the lesser.

  • Ensure the group has completed and registered a COVID-Safety Plan for the activity and has it available for inspection.
  • Ensure the number of people in the building does not exceed one person per 4 square metres of space (excluding staff).
  • Ensure gym, recreation classes such as tai chi and pilates, dance classes and sport activities have no more than 20 participants, plus the instructor and any assistants, per space that complies with one participant per 4 square metres.
  • There may be multiple classes in a room if there is sufficient space to accommodate this and the classes remain separate.
  • Ensure participants maintain 1.5 metres physical distance where practical.  Ensure any spectators comply with 1.5 metres physical distance where practical, such as through staggered seating.  Household contacts are not required to distance.

(b) What are the rules for playgroups?

Playgroups can use church premises subject to the number of people on the premises not exceeding one person per 4 square metres of floor space or 100 persons (excluding staff), whichever is the lesser.

  • Ensure the playgroup has completed and registered a COVID-Safety Plan for the activity and has it available for inspection.
  • Adopt good hygiene practices.
  • Designate the internal and external spaces that each gathering will use.
  • Record and store the contact details of those who attend.
  • Clean the surfaces of the defined space(s) after each gathering.
  • Communicate the arrangements and guidelines with parents/caregivers.
  • Set up spaces and activities that enable 1.5m physical distancing to occur between adults, and between children and adults.  For example, games involving physical contact between adults and children should be avoided.  Games involving physical contact between young people are allowed.  Enforce 1.5m distancing for leaders’ meetings.
  • Implement drop-off and pick up procedures that minimise the opportunity for adults to congregate together.
  • Wipe down all balls, equipment and toys used at the end of the gathering. You may choose to rotate equipment when running consecutive gatherings.  Toys that cannot be cleaned and sanitized should not be used. (e.g. Play doh).  
  • Children’s books, like other paper-based materials such as mail or envelopes, are not considered a high risk for transmission and do not need additional cleaning or disinfection procedures.
  • Restrict the swapping of phones and devices between all participants.
  • Avoid handling physical objects that are not your own property such as Bibles and handouts and money.
  • Ask participants to bring their own drink or water bottle and food.  If food is provided, ensure that it is in individually packaged for each person and use only paper cups.
  • Distribute food hygienically, maintaining social distancing.

Hand sanitiser safety and children

Alcohol-based hand sanitiser is dangerous if ingested, particularly for children.  Safety tips for carers: 

  • store hand sanitiser products safely and out of reach of children.
  • any use by young children should be under the supervision of an adult.
  • be aware of imported products which may not be clearly labelled and may contain more toxic alcohols such as methanol that make the product more dangerous.
  • washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is a safe and effective option.
  • if you suspect the child has ingested hand sanitiser, regardless of the quantity, call the 24 hour Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 for first aid and monitoring advice.  Have the container of the ingested product with you.

4. Singing

The question of singing is proving quite troublesome for all churches as it restricts the normal worship service of praise to our Lord.

The current NSW Health ‘Places of Worship’ Safety Plan (https://www.nsw.gov.au/covid-19/industry-guidelines/places-of-worship) states:

  • Group singing or chanting is particularly high risk and so should be avoided. 
  • Solo singing and wind instruments can spread COVID-19 if a participant is infected.  Additional planning around these activities should be undertaken from a work health and safety perspective, including ensuring 3 metres distance from the audience.

In other words, NSW Health has not mandated against singing, but is asking churches to undertake additional planning to keep safe those attending church.

There is no change to previous advices about individuals playing music or singing at the front of the congregation so long as the musicians are exercising physical distancing between one another, and there is at least 3 metres between them and the congregation in front of whom they are singing.

In the spirit of the legislation, we encourage congregants to avoid singing, preferring to listen to the music or hum along.

On the question about children singing, the answer is unclear as the Places of Worship Safety Plan advises that education programs (we assume this means kids church and Sunday Schools) should be conducted in accordance with NSW guidelines on schools and childcare.  The COVID Guidelines for schools and childcare state that choirs and performing arts at school are permitted, with safety protocols in place.  We are aware that different schools have implemented different protocols for singing.

On balance, and in the spirit of the legislation at the present time with all that is happening in Victoria, we would suggest that singing be discouraged, even by children. 

5. Bible study and growth groups in private homes

The rules on gatherings remain the same: 20 guests inside the home and 20 for gatherings in a public place.  However, as the home is a high transmission area, the NSW Chief Health Officer strongly recommends a COVID-Safe precautionary approach of limiting visitors to the home to 10 people as a general principle.  

As private residences are not places of worship, there is no 4sqm rule applicable to gatherings in homes and there is no requirement to prepare a COVID-19 Safety Plan for gatherings in homes.

NSW Health in various faith forums has asked all faiths to respect the separation of the church/faith and its religious activities and those of the private household.  The householder carries the risk and burden if a visitor contracts the virus or spreads the virus in the home.  The Church carries that risk and burden when opening up a place of worship to the public.  Accordingly, we ask that Bible studies not be advertised as church events. 

Should a householder invite visitors to their home for bible study or to watch services, we encourage people to practice 1.5m social distancing and good hygiene at all times.

6. NSW Health points highlighted in previous Updates for ease of referral

  • Display conditions of entry (website, social media, venue entry).
  • Reduce mingling wherever possible and promote physical distancing. Where reasonably practical, ensure congregational members and church staff maintain 1.5 metres physical distancing at all times, including in office or meeting rooms.  Note that family members do not need to physically distance.
  • Children and youth ministries should be conducted in accordance with the NSW Government guidelines on Schools and Childcare.  Children do not need to follow strict adult physical distancing guidelines but should follow good hygiene practices.  Leaders should continue to maintain 1.5m physical distancing from children where practical.
  • Please continue to use telephone or videoconferencing for essential meetings where practical.
  • Review regular deliveries and request contactless delivery and invoicing where practical.
  • Have strategies in place to manage gatherings that may occur immediately outside the premises, such as at the conclusion of services.  This may involve suspending or adjusting the practice of greeting congregants as they arrive or depart to ensure appropriate physical distancing.
  • Coordinate with public transport, where reasonably practical, around strategies to minimise COVID-19 risks associated with transportation to and from the church if crowding on public transport may occur.
  • Take measures to ensure drivers of courtesy vehicles minimise close contact with passengers where possible.
  • Please ask and exclude church staff and congregants who are unwell from the premises.
  • Provide staff with information and training on COVID-19, including when to get tested, physical distancing and cleaning.

Hygiene and cleaning

  • Adopt good hand hygiene practices.
  • Ensure bathrooms are well stocked with hand soap and paper towels or hand dryers.
  • Consider modifying the serving of communion to avoid direct contact where practical.  Where this is not practical, ensure hands are washed before and after each interaction with soap and water or hand sanitiser.
  • Avoid sharing books, drinking cups or other shared objects used during the service such as collection plates.
  • Clean frequently used indoor hard surface areas (including children’s play areas) at least daily with detergent/disinfectant.  Clean frequently touched areas and surfaces several times per day.
  • Disinfectant solutions need to be maintained at an appropriate strength and used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Staff are to wear gloves when cleaning and wash hands thoroughly before and after with soap and water.

Please do not hesitate to email Jeof Falls on jfalls@pcnsw.org.au or Peter Merrick on pmerrick@pcnsw.org.au should you have any questions.

Grace and peace,
Andrew Campell, NSW Moderator, PCNSW
Jeoffrey R Falls, General Manager, Chief Executive Officer