A multitude of voices filled the Sunday morning air for the first time since March 2020 at First Congregational Church of Wiscasset, United Church of Christ on July 4. Sunday marked a major milestone for the church in the pandemic recovery: Singing was allowed with a mask.
Like many churches around the country, Wiscasset UCC has gone through multiple phases of closing and reopening over the last year and a half. After a full closure and a move to pre-recorded services early in 2020, the church moved to a live-streamed service with no in-person attendance, to limited attendance last fall, and then a move to no in-person options as COVID cases rose over the holidays, with the exception of an outdoor Christmas Eve service. As vaccinations began and case numbers began to improve, the church moved back to a limited in-person model after the Easter holidays. Pastor Josh Fitterling said, “As we have been reopening, each step we have taken has been prayerful and intentional, as we have sought to follow the available science from the Maine CDC as well as other sources connected with church gatherings. I believe we have been faithful as we have also been moving forward.”
Updated guidance from state and federal authorities has made the changing of safety protocols a moving target. With the change in recommendation from the CDC that only those unvaccinated are encouraged to wear a mask, the church lifted the mandatory mask requirement on July 4, requiring them only when singing.
Singing has been a major piece that was missing for many congregants and for the last 14 months has been taken care of by a soloist, as congregational singing was not allowed. Member and former music teacher Beth Whitney was a frequent soloist but is relieved to be back to singing again with the congregation. “It was my pleasure to serve the congregation as one of the ‘COVID soloists’ but I've never been happier to be let go from a job! It's great to be back to singing together again!” Fitterling is also happy to be back singing. “For now, we sing in the sanctuary with masks as an act of care and compassion for one another and for those who are unable to be vaccinated. Still, these masks do not hide our joy in being able to join our voices in song once more!”
Directly after services, congregants are also happy to have a modified version of “coffee hour” return, with people encouraged to bring their own mugs for coffee and tea, and other safety precautions being taken.
The church council meets each month and considering updated protocols will surely be on the agenda for months to come before things return to the way they were pre-pandemic. The live-streamed service option will be a permanent fixture. But in the meantime, the return of congregational singing brings back a sense of normalcy.