Kary Jane Hutto realized she would need to attend church in person again after her husband was called as bishop of the McKinney Texas 8th Ward on Jan. 3.
Hutto’s family had spent almost a full year watching church online from home, staying indoors and exercising caution during the COVID-19 pandemic. As her husband started his new role as bishop, Hutto’s family of six prepared to go back to church in person.
“We decided to all go as a family, always masked up,” Hutto said.
She immediately noticed a change in her ward’s attendance. The pews were nearly empty when Hutto’s family returned.
After a month, the number of members attending in person slowly increased, but have not returned to pre-COVID-19 attendance. Hutto said many members in her ward continue to attend online because they prefer not to wear a mask.
“They didn’t and still don’t believe that the coronavirus is real,” Hutto said. “Wearing a mask during church services is still divisive due to political differences and a lot of ignorance.”
Such experiences are still prevalent, despite being a year into the pandemic. Some Latter-day Saint wards invite half of their members to come in person on alternate weeks while the other half watch online. Other congregations are also dealing with the fallout of varying COVID-19 opinions and political views.
Rob Colman, the first counselor of the Nampa Idaho 24th Ward bishopric, has also seen church attendance numbers drop.
“The majority of comments that we hear are not wanting to be ‘forced’ to wear masks,” Colman said. “They feel it is all politically based. At first, when it was more of a suggestion than a mandate, there were members on the other side of the spectrum saying that we all needed to be wearing them.”
Emily Anderson with BYU’s chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative student group, has noticed the impact of mask divisiveness in Provo wards. “People are traveling more, going to wards where they don’t have to wear masks and where activities are being held, or they’re home more often, zooming in,” Anderson said.
With the political divisiveness created during the 2020 election year, some members don’t want to wear masks because the coronavirus has also been politicized and now divides people, Anderson said.
Both Hutto’s family and Anderson contracted COVID-19, despite exercising caution.
“I had so many friends and members in my ward that couldn’t believe we got it with how careful we were,” Hutto said. “It was a beat down.”
Since contracting COVID-19, Anderson has “relaxed on the restrictions” and hasn’t gotten sick again. “My dad got COVID when he was completely isolated,” Anderson said.
Brad Williams, a physical therapist in Twin Falls, Idaho, said some of the patients he treats in-home health at local nursing homes have been hospitalized for COVID-19.
While Williams adheres to the mask mandate and safety precautions, he said, “It takes very little research to understand that mask-wearing has a debatable effect on infection and morbidity rates. This is one of those rare occasions in which the Church has been forced by governors and the state to formulate policy on what has become a political lightning rod.”
Kanon Foote, head moderator of a BYU Conservatives Instagram page, said, “The government should have 0% say in mask mandates. It should be left totally up to the private sector — businesses and religious organizations — and the individual.”
Some states, like California, are still prohibiting various church gatherings and activities. Indoor church attendance is limited to 25% of building capacity and choir practices are forbidden.
Williams said he believes that “members don’t wish to adhere to arbitrary policies which are targeted more toward churches than other gatherings.”
Situations with politicians mandating masking and social distancing behavior for citizens but ignoring those guidelines themselves, like California Gov. Gavin Newsom visiting a Napa Valley restaurant in November, may have influenced members’ perception of COVID-19 policies.
“Certain members won’t listen to restrictions on religious gatherings because they’re mandated by those who behave hypocritically,” Williams said. “To the subset of members who do not believe in the efficacy of mask-wearing, it is a matter of principle.”
In a recent letter from the First Presidency, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint wrote that they want to be “good global citizens” and do what they can to control the contagious illness. A phased approach to reopening formal Sunday Church gatherings was implemented at the end of last year. Those guidelines are based on local restrictions in each area.
“We will continue to be prayerful and proceed with an abundance of caution. Your safety and well-being will always be our utmost concern,” Church President Russell M. Nelson, a former heart surgeon, said in a video to members.
Some members want to attend church services, but don’t want to wear masks. “If the Church truly supports agency and accountability, they would let us make our own health decisions,” Anderson said. “People just want to worship without being forced.”
Although Colman doesn’t enjoy wearing masks, he wears one at every ward function and meeting. “Our leaders have asked us to and it allows us to worship in person,” Colman said. “If wearing a mask allows someone else to feel safer and able to go out, then I am good with that. Like our leaders have said, it is an act of Christlike love.”
According to Colman, too many people are turning the mask mandate into a political statement and are missing the point of doing what Church leaders have asked members to do.
“It is not a political thing or about losing our rights at this point, it is an act of Christlike love and obedience to the brethren. It’s a sacrifice we make to be true disciples of Jesus Christ,” Colman said, adding unwillingness to adhere to the guidelines “is a lack of faith and peoples’ unwillingness to submit to the will of our Heavenly Father.”