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Churches in the U.S. are banning drinking communion wine and the sign of peace to stop the spread of coronavirus

Fear spreads along with coronavirus
Fear spreads along with cases of coronavirus 07:13

In South Korea, a staggering two-thirds of the more than 4,000 people who have now tested positive for coronavirus are tied to the same church. In fact, Lee Man-hee, the leader of Shincheonji Church, got on his knees and bowed to the ground at a news conference as he apologized for his fringe Christian sect's role in the spread of the virus.

It plays to reason that churches are potentially dangerous breeding grounds for an outbreak like the coronavirus illness, officially known as COVID-19. Not only do services involve gatherings of large groups of people, they often involve the touching of strangers' hands and the sharing of communal cups. And at a time when health experts are recommending social distancing, neither of these actions seem advisable.

So, are churches in the United States taking any precautions to avoid the spread of coronavirus? On the level of individual dioceses, some are.

On February 27, the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey issued liturgical guidelines instructing its 109 parishes to discontinue the option of drinking "the Precious Blood from the chalice," effective immediately.

"During the Exchange of Peace, worshipers should simply bow with respect to each other and not shake hands," the guidance continues.

They are also instructing all eucharistic ministers to have bottles of Purell on hand and to use hand sanitizer both before and after the distribution of Communion. The same goes for liturgical ministers before and after Mass.

In Illinois, the Diocese of Joliet is taking similar measures.

"We led the mass today with a formal announcement before the mass even began, which is extraordinary for us," Rev. Joshua Miller of St. Charles Borromeo Church told CBS Chicago. "I haven't done it in five years… I think everybody understands the need to err on the side of caution — even on a normal flu season, but with the threat of coronavirus in particular."

Worshippers receive communion as they attend a Christmas eve mass at the Xishiku Cathedral in Beijing on December 24, 2019.  NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

A representative for the Diocese of Brooklyn told CBS News that they have had a mandatory suspension on drinking wine from the communal cup instituted all winter. Additionally, while there has not yet been an official mandate, they have suggested that all Catholic churches in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, voluntary suspend the distribution of communion bread directly onto churchgoers' tongues. The Diocese recommended "that folks receive the Body of the Christ in their hand" instead.

These sorts of protective measures are not unique to the Catholic Church.

While not explicitly prohibiting the passing of the peace or drinking wine from the common cup, the Episcopal Diocese of California issued guidelines to its congregations late last week, instructing them to "consider alternatives to handshaking or hugging."

"A nod, a wave, or touching our hands to our hearts are among the many ways we can acknowledge Christ in one another," the guidelines read.

The diocese also asked congregants to refrain from the practice of intinction, which is when people dip the communion bread or wafer into the wine.

"Intinction is not a safer practice than sipping from the chalice," a representative wrote in a statement to CBS News. "There is a risk that the bacteria on our hands may come in contact with the wine."

They are also encouraging any of the approximately 24,000 people across their 80 congregations who feel "even slightly unwell" or are concerned about their health to "refrain from contact with the chalice." They are advising anyone sick to simply stay home. 

CBS News has also reached out to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, where "the blood of Christ" is consumed at communion through the use of a communal spoon which enters the mouth of every churchgoer, but has not yet received a response.

Worshippers receive communion during Christmas Mass at the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Syria's northern city of Aleppo on December 25, 2019.  -AFP via Getty Images

Addressing concerns about the potential for contracting infection or germs from the Holy Spoon, Rev. Fr. Stylianos Muksuris writes on the Orthodox Research Institute's website:

"From a purely microbiological perspective, the sweet red wine used in Communion is typically high in alcoholic content. This means that the chances of bacteria or germs surviving in it are virtually minimal to non-existent. Although each of us communes the Body and Blood of Christ, the invisible microbes that may enter our mouths from the previous communicant are harmless. From a purely experiential perspective, every chalice on Sundays is consumed in its totality by the priest, after several mouths have communed from it. No priest, including the writer of this column, has ever become ill or incapacitated after consuming the Holy Gifts. And finally, from a purely spiritual perspective, the Holy Gifts are exactly that: they are sacred. ... If we truly believe in God, we know quite well that God would never allow harm to come to us, most especially in the reception of Holy Communion."

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