The Plan to Reopen Church Is Missing Something Crucial: Professional Cleaning Services

An unrealistically small number of people stage a COVID sacrament meeting | Intellectual Reserve
It's time to call back in the custodians. Deep cleaning shouldn't fall on everyday members.

As you’ve undoubtedly become aware, a few days ago, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released formal guidance on how we can ease back into meeting together in our chapels on Sundays. Overall, it’s a nice enough framework that takes into account the need for regional and local oversight in deciding how best to carry out the phased approach to holding meetings once more. Given the diverse nature of COVID-19 impact globally, it makes sense that Salt Lake wouldn’t embrace a centralized approach, at least not completely.

However, there is one glaring omission in the plan, and that is when it comes to cleaning our buildings, which at this point should be a centralized effort from Salt Lake, not one left to local interpreation. The letter has one paragraph devoted to “Sanitary Procedures”:

Leaders should ensure that buildings are thoroughly cleaned after each set of meetings, especially areas that are touched, such as doorknobs, light switches, water fountains, microphones, and pulpits. Wards may post signs in restrooms as a reminder to wash hands. Where available, hand sanitizer should be provided in meetinghouse foyers. According to local government regulations, members may be encouraged to wear face masks. Wards may consider discontinuing printed programs until conditions return to normal.

This seems straightforward, and you might wonder what there is to gripe about. That’s why I’m here! To help you find things for complaint!

First off, part of the issue with cleaning the buildings after each abbreviated meeting is that under the current guidance, these meetings should hold no more than 99 people, and current counsel means the building will have to be cleaned multiple times a day, by members, no less. The Church has offered a few snippets on how to deal with that (and it will be dealt with pretty quickly since Utah, of all places, is ground zero for a rollout; Utah doesn’t exactly have many units with less than 99 people). The primary guidance is that when “more members desire to attend than the above guidelines follow, leaders may hold multiple meetings during the day or invite members to attend on alternate weeks.”

Secondly, what if your meetinghouse has more than one ward or branch in it? Multiple-ward meetinghouses are commonplace in the Church, so this is almost a given that it will be an issue. All the Church has offered here is for stake presidents to “adjust meeting times to avoid overlapping schedules,” which should certainly be in the stake president’s purview and no one else’s.

So let’s pretend you are in Utah, and three wards of approximately 250 people (lowballing) use your building. Those wards currently meet at 9:00, 10:30, and 12:00. First, let’s adjust the schedules so there’s no overlap. Assuming local units follow the initial guidance to hold only sacrament meetings—and perhaps shorter ones at that—we won’t have to make too many tweaks, at least up front. But if we are giving time for a solid cleaning between meetings, 30 minutes between sessions might not be enough. Let’s assume that and provide a full hour between meetings, moving our times to 9:00, 11:00, and 1:00.

Great, now we have to split the wards three ways to accommodate the capacity limitations, giving us nine groups. How would we alternate nine groups? “Alternate” implies every other week, so we’d have to have four wards one Sunday and five on the other unless we embraced a three-week rotation. We could still pull this off, but it would mean meeting at 9:00, 11:00, 1:00, and 3:00 on one Sunday, and maybe 8:00, 10:00, 12:00, 2:00, and 4:00 on the other Sunday. Doable? Yes. Ideal? Not really.

In this scenario individuals will need to clean all common surfaces with hardcore disinfectant between every meeting. Ideally, your chapel should reek of alcohol when you enter like Amsterdam on a Sunday morning (OK, that’s more the smell of stale beer and other, um, liquids, but work with me!). But that involves a pretty significant lift: getting everyone present to shoo out the door quickly, and then getting to work cleaning everything that might have been touched.

To its credit, the Church does recognize that wards with larger attendance might just need to wait until phase 2 to meet. And what is phase 2? It basically means things are back to normal, pursuant to local government regulations. I don’t think I’m reaching, but wards that need to start at phase 2 might be waiting some time until it’s safe to meet.

This brings me back to professional cleaners. The Church once employed professional cleaners (and still does in some cases outside of North America). Sometime in the late 1980s or 1990s, however, in an effort to save money and ostensibly give local members more pride in their meetinghouses, the janitors were shown the door and since then, meetinghouse cleaning has been the dubious honor of local membership.

Dubious in a few ways, actually, for not only does literally no one like cleaning the meetinghouse, it is also done at a dubious level of effort and quality. That’s anecdotal of me, sure, but you, dear reader, know it’s true. This is what happens when busy families can spare an hour on a Saturday morning. That random, unmarked green cleaner in the custodial closet appears to be mostly water, maybe with some ammonia. That won’t disinfect against coronavirus. Only disinfectant with at least 70% alcohol by volume stands a chance. Glass cleaner is pointless. Dusting solves nothing.

This is where Salt Lake absolutely should be involved, and clearly at that. Ideally, Church leadership would announce that it intends to secure and deliver ample volumes of COVID-grade cleaner, and while local members will need to be the ones to use it between sacrament meetings, the Church will arrange for actual professional cleaners to come in to deep clean the buildings every Saturday, aided by the fact that the virus would wither and die over the course of a week in an undisturbed building. If we are daring to tell our members it is somehow marginally safer to congregate once more, we owe it to them to take one more variable out of the equation and allow them to arrive at a thoroughly cleaned building every week, organized by local stakes but financially and logistically supported by Church HQ. It’s unrealistic to try to reinstate member-driven building cleaning while social distancing remains in effect, especially because it is doubtful those members will be equipped with the appropriate personal protective equipment necessary to meet together to clean the building.

Could stake leaders organize this? Absolutely. But should they? Should they be saddled with deciding whether or not to use the stake budget for such a thing? No. This should be a global initiative to ensure our facilities are as squeaky clean as they can be, and you don’t get to that level by bringing in the nuances of local judgment. It’s simple: “Buildings should be cleaned and sanitized by professional services at least once a week. Stake presidents, counseling with area presidencies, will take the appropriate steps.” And the headquarters could be specific on which practices and cleaning materials pass muster, because coronavirus infects the same way everywhere and couldn’t care less about local regulations.

Of course, none of this solves two remaining issues: the difficulty in sanitizing fabric pews in between meetings (you absolutely know this won’t happen), and the unrealistic counsel to simply space out the sacrament bread on the tray, even if that tray is only handled by the deacon passing it.

It is time once more to call in the pros. Although apparently everyone on social media is a trained epidemiologist (who knew?!) with ample expertise, it’s funny how absolutely none of us are skilled in the fine art of sanitizing semi-public areas. Besides, we’ll be helping local economies, even in seemingly small ways, which is better than leaving this to a unreliable volunteer effort.

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