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The 2020 hurricane season is here and agencies are predicting above average activity. This year’s season places worship facilities in a precarious position, serving community amidst the COVID-19 pandemic while often providing post-disaster support. Guy Russ, assistant vice president of Risk Control at Church Mutual Insurance Company, S.I., shares challenges facing houses of worship in the coming months and how best to prepare.

How does this year’s hurricane season differ from year’s past?

Houses of worship often serve as a place of refuge during and after a storm, and provide sanctuary for displaced persons and families forced to evacuate. While worship facilities prepare months in advance for potential hurricane-related challenges, this year there are additional risks stemming from COVID-19. Organizations need to make sure they are prepared for both.

What do houses of worship need to do?

If your facility is designated as a community shelter, you need to make sure you are communicating your building’s status, so others know what to expect. Take a close look at your emergency plan for accuracy. Be sure the person designated as team leader is still able to fulfill the function during the pandemic. Have a clear chain of command regarding communications (website, social media, phone, etc.). Generators, flashlights, batteries or other items intended to provide emergency power, must be properly disinfected. Also, if your facility remains closed due to COVID-19, make it clear to your community that they need to find another facility.

Where can houses of worship find support if reopening for emergencies?

The American Red Cross is using hotels as community shelters in many parts of the country to provide for social distancing. There may not be a need for your facility to reopen; however, if you would like to open to provide shelter, check with the Red Cross first. You may be able to become a designated Red Cross shelter and receive operational and logistical support.

What precautions should be considered during the pandemic?

Public health experts have advised that COVID-19 is most likely to spread when large groups of people are close together for an extended period of time. Use the utmost caution when providing shelter. Some precautions to consider include:

  • Requiring health screening on admission with a separate screening area; providing a minimum of 110 sq. ft. of space per person; enforcing social distancing;
  • Requiring face coverings for staff, volunteers and clients; and,
  • Managing meal times to avoid lines and not allowing self-service.

What else should be considered?

Some other things to consider include establishing a limitation on items that can be brought into the shelter and/or donated due to sanitization requirements. You’ll also need to think about:

  • Enhancing your cleaning and disinfecting schedule;
  • Setting up additional hand-washing stations and providing hand sanitizer;
  • Providing an isolation care area with physical separation from the “dormitory” area, which is managed by health care professionals;
  • Staffing a screening area and shelter entrance/exit 24/7; and,
  • Collecting contact information for all people using the shelter so you have a means of contact tracing should an infection occur.

Preparedness guides, resources and more can be found at    

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