[See Updates at end of post for breaking news.] Social distancing is coming to America. It’s the latest coronavirus-inspired buzzword, but it reflects the prudent measures that individuals and organizations are now being forced to take in light of current developments. In South Korea, the virus cluster was a megachurch. In Washington State, it was a retirement care facility. In Massachussetts, the virus cluster was a corporate meeting that went ahead rather than cancelling (oops) and now 70 of the 92 cases in Massachussetts are linked to that corporate meeting. No big meetings. Don’t shake hands. Keep your distance. Revenge of the introverts.
No meetings? No handshakes? What’s a Mormon to do? In Washington State, at least two stakes in the Seattle area have cancelled all church meetings this coming Sunday. In light of the governor’s impending directive to cancel public gatherings of more than 250 people in the greater Seattle area, more LDS units may follow suit. The Seattle temple is closed at least until April 1. I expect that LDS stakes and temples in other afflicted areas will be forced to follow suit in coming weeks. On the national scene, the big question is whether the NCAA basketball tournament will go forward (likely yes) and whether fans will be allowed into arenas to watch the games (up for debate). March Madness might become March Sickness.
The other big LDS impact of social distancing is the missionary force scattered around the globe. Their job is more or less to close social distance with dozens or hundreds of people a day, so obviously this is a problem. The simple problem is to minimize their exposure, which means just tell them to stay home and
play video games contact people on social media. The tougher question is when to reassign missionaries to other areas or send almost-finished missionaries home just a bit early. The Church has been taking some reasonable actions along these lines, but doesn’t always share all the details publicly. Readers can contribute any actions they are aware of. Let’s hope a returning and self-quarantining missionary who makes an exception for a homecoming talk at the ward doesn’t become the Utah virus cluster bomb.
Let’s think about the long-term impact of social distancing for a minute. Maybe some businesses and employees will find working from home actually works and some will stick with it. Maybe some churchgoers will find that online church is actually a more uplifting experience than in-person church and stick with it. (I suspect this is one of the reasons LDS policy prohibits broadcasting LDS services online.) Universities may be forced to accelerate their online offerings. Maybe some socially reserved types will go Full Introvert and shun public gatherings of all kinds. The losers here will be sports events, movie theaters, church congregations, school events if not schools themselves, and so forth. The winners will be everything online. Stock tip: Buy Amazon.
Whether all of this resonates with you or not may depend on where you live. I have relatives in Seattle, so I’ve been following it very closely. Locally, here in Wyoming, not only do LDS meetings continue but there is a joint meeting of the two wards scheduled for this Sunday — because who could expect the visiting Mission President to speak twice on the same day? It’s followed by a Linger Longer munch-fest where both congregations can mingle, cough, and sniffle together. Granted, there are no cases in this community yet, but the optics aren’t good. We should not be planning on how to get more people together in one room at the moment. Never thought I would skip a Linger Longer, but this might be it. Linger Longer, meet Early Exit.
UPDATE — This just in at the Newsroom and by email blast from the Church:
- General Conference adjustments – “To help control this problem, we feel it wise to limit attendance at the upcoming April 2020 General Conference. We plan to conduct all five sessions of that conference at the Conference Center. General authorities, general officers and their spouses, musicians, choirs, technicians, and others will participate as assigned. But, proceedings of the conference will be distributed throughout the world via technology only. The public will not be admitted in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, or in stake centers or meetinghouses in areas where contagion is a concern.” (Emphasis added.)
- Large gatherings – “After considering the counsel of governmental, ecclesiastical, and medical leaders around the world and our own prayerful reflection, we will postpone stake and leadership conferences and other large gatherings in Church Areas where illness caused by COVID-19 is a challenge, including, Asia, Asia North, Europe, Europe East, [and] all Areas in the United States and Canada.
“These temporary adjustments will take effect March 16, 2020. Large gatherings in other areas of the world may continue as usual unless directed otherwise by Area Presidencies, who counsel with their leaders.
“In relation to weekly worship services, activities and other meetings, members should follow the guidance of their local leaders, who will receive direction in the usual manner.”
- Missionary Training Centers – “Beginning March 16, 2020, all missionaries scheduled to enter missionary training centers in Provo, Utah, or Preston, England, will be trained remotely by video conference. Other missionary training centers will continue to function as usual, but they will not receive any missionaries from regions where government officials are restricting activity. Missionaries from those areas will also be trained by video conference.”