Reopening and Looking After Your Church Buildings
A guidance on safely reopening and caring for church buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Published: 29 Jan 2021
Last Updated: 29 Jan 2021
Whilst the majority of Church of Scotland buildings are currently closed for worship, at various times during the pandemic they have been open for services and used to celebrate life events. They are also used to support our local communities, including most recently operating as temporary vaccination centres. Many congregations were able to reopen their buildings following the initial lockdown in March 2020. However, since then stricter lockdown rules have been re-instigated and they have had to close again, whilst some churches have taken the difficult decision to remain closed throughout the period.
This guidance refers to the key issues relating to the reopening of church buildings when that becomes possible, and how to ensure the health, safety and welfare of those who work in, volunteer or visit your church buildings.
If congregations are unable to reopen their church buildings, then it is important that they take reasonable steps to ensure that the church buildings they are responsible for are maintained in a suitable and safe condition. This is a requirement of your insurance cover and congregations will have to demonstrate that reasonable care and attention has been taken to look after their church buildings. Please read the section "Looking after your church buildings" carefully, and if you have any questions please contact Church or Scotland Insurance Service by email (email@example.com).
Looking after your church buildings
It is important that congregations understand their responsibilities in looking after their building to comply with important insurance requirements.
If your church buildings are closed solely due to the Scottish Government closure mandate applying from 5 January 2021, then the insurer for our Church Scheme, Aviva, has offered to maintain full cover in return for compliance with five basic property management requirements:
- Carry out internal and external inspections of their building/s at least once a week
- Maintain a weekly log of inspections
- Immediately repair, or arrange to repair, any issues detected (including removal of graffiti and in the security or alarm or fire protection installations)
- Remove any waste from the premises either inside or outside the building/s
- Check to make sure all the external doors are locked and close and secure all windows.
These steps will remain in place until such time as the Scottish Government’s closure mandate relating to the closure of places of worship changes. Given the fluid nature of the Government’s response to the virus they should also form the basis of a property management strategy to be applied whether premises are deemed occupied or unoccupied to provide a consistent element of oversight on the condition of the property.
A weekly inspection checklist and log of inspections has been produced and congregations are actively encouraged to use this during their weekly inspections.
Aviva do, however, recognise that there may be circumstances where it’s not possible for weekly inspections to be undertaken. Where this is the case, you should contact CoSIS to discuss whether another approach may be possible.
If your church buildings had not re-opened following the initial lockdown in March 2020 or were closed prior to the imposition of the Scottish Government mandate from 5 January 2021 the buildings are now likely to be considered unoccupied. Whilst it has been agreed that at this point in time no additional premium will be charged there will be a material reduction in the cover provided and a revised version of the unoccupancy endorsement will require to be complied with and will also include the need to check the building and maintain accurate logs of visits and matters of concern. Please note that there is a duty to disclose unoccupancy to your insurer and failure to do so could result in non-payment of a claim. Further information can be found on COSIC's website or by emailing COSIC.
If you have any questions concerns regarding health and safety or the condition of your building, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have any questions or concerns specifically relating to COVID-19, please email Covid19Guidance@churchofscotland.org.uk.
Inspection Report Templates
Planning to reopen church buildings
The Scottish Government will decide when congregations will be able to consider reopening their church buildings as part of their Covid-19 Framework for Decision Making. Congregations, alongside Presbytery, will then be able to decide whether they wish to reopen their church buildings or not. At this stage, no congregation will be required to reopen their church buildings unless they believe that it is safe to do so. However, it is important that congregations do not reopen their church buildings or undertake any activity unless doing so is permitted in terms of the Scottish Government guidance or relevant regulatory provisions.
When deciding whether to reopen a church building, it may be useful to ask yourself the following initial questions:
- Can we safely practice physical distancing within our church buildings?
- Can we provide access to suitable hand hygiene facilities?
- Do we have enough willing volunteers who will be able to assist church members and visitors to our buildings and to help them understand and follow our safety precautions?
- Do we have enough willing volunteers who will be able to assist with the regular cleaning and disinfection of our buildings?
All of these questions are important, as congregations must have the resources and ability to put in place reasonable precautions to control the risks of COVID-19 before they can reopen.
The role of Presbytery
Every Presbytery has general powers of superintendence over congregations within its bounds. Presbytery also has a duty to ensure that church buildings are safe. This is normally carried out during a five-yearly inspection of church buildings and annually attesting records that consist of a property inspection, updated Property Register and relevant Health and Safety documentation.
It is expected that all Presbyteries will play a role in supporting congregations and ministers in the reopening of their church buildings. This may vary across Presbyteries, but as a minimum standard Presbyteries will ensure that every congregation has completed a reopening of church buildings checklist and a COVID-19 risk assessment which indicates that the congregation can meet the legal requirements expected of a church building open to members of the public. Where a disagreement between a minister and the congregation exists over the reopening of their church buildings, the Presbytery should seek to discuss the matter with the congregation and the minister to understand the issues and work in partnership to overcome the challenges and reach agreement.
The COVID-19 risk assessment must be updated to reflect the additional activities that the congregation will be undertaking and supporting as COVID-19 restrictions are reduced. For example, when childcare services resume in their church buildings or when external groups return to use their buildings. There is no need for congregations to submit updated COVID-19 risk assessments to Presbytery before any additional activity or service returns to the church building so long as Presbytery is confident that the congregation will be able to suitably control any additional risks that may be created. However, Presbytery may wish to implement their own assurance process or system to support congregations as they reopen their church buildings for further use.
Congregations should ensure that they are aware of their own Presbytery’s process for approval for the reopening of church buildings and subsequent use of their church buildings for additional activities before moving forward. For example, if your presbytery has approved the reopening of your church sanctuary, then they may also require additional approval before the church hall can reopen.
Presbyteries may also wish to consider bulk buying schemes for cleaning and hygiene products and, where appropriate, may offer advice or instruction to congregations on the reopening of their church buildings in accordance with the general powers of Presbytery.
Many congregations will already be following the guidance issued by the Church of Scotland Insurance Service (COSIS) and the General Trustees about regularly visiting and inspecting your church property whilst it is closed. Therefore, it is likely that you will know the current condition of your church property. Congregations must use the property checklist as part of their planning to reopen their church buildings.
Before visiting and inspecting your church buildings, consider who may have accessed them in the previous week. Anyone visiting or inspecting church buildings should have been following the guidance issued by the General Trustees, which includes the need for cleaning and disinfecting of all hand contact surfaces that they may have touched during their visit. If you are unsure who last accessed your church buildings or when the last person visited your church buildings, you should wait 72 hours before you visit your buildings to complete the property checklist. In addition, when more than one person is completing the property checklist, physical distancing must be observed, and a face covering must be worn unless they are from the same household. Good hygiene practices must be followed at all times during your visit, and all hand contact surfaces that you have touched must be cleaned and disinfected before leaving the church building.
It is the responsibility of every congregation to ensure that there are suitable and sufficient arrangements in place to comply with health and safety legislation. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is clear that COVID-19 is a recognised hazard and therefore the congregation must undertake a COVID-19 risk assessment. The COVID-19 risk assessment must be completed before any activities take place within a church building or church grounds that the congregation is responsible for. The risk assessment must also be regularly reviewed and updated as and when there are changes within the congregation, for example when external groups return to use your church building or when there is an increase in the number of people attending worship. A copy of the COVID-19 risk assessment must be retained in your church building and made available should anyone ask to see it.
The COVID-19 risk assessment supplements the risk assessments that you should already have in place for your church buildings. Congregations will be required to review and update all other risk assessments that are already in place to ensure that they accurately reflect the hazards and risks within their church buildings. Further advice and guidance on risk assessments can be found in the Church of Scotland General Trustees Health and Safety Toolkit.
For any activities that take place within church buildings and grounds (internal and external groups) should complete an activity risk assessment for which more details can be found in the Activity-Based Risk Assessments section of our Reshaping Church Life page.
COVID-19 emergency procedures
The congregation should ensure that they have a procedure in place to deal with emergencies, including what to do if someone falls ill when visiting your church buildings. Health Protection Scotland (HPS) has produced an accessible guidance on how to respond to a COVID-19 incident in a non-healthcare setting and congregations should familiarise themselves with this document.
Please note, HPS updates this guidance regularly so it is important that you refer back to this document from time to time to ensure that you are using the most up-to-date version of the guidance.
The HSE has published guidance for first-aiders with specific reference to COVID-19 and congregations should ensure that they have suitable and sufficient arrangements in place to respond to any first-aid emergencies
Registering attendance in church buildings
Each congregation will be required to provide the details of at least one person within the congregation who will be the main contact should the local Health Protection Team require details of who has attend their church buildings. Congregations should register their point of contact online at churchofscotland.org.uk/test-protect. Further information, advice and guidance is provided on our Assisting NHS Test & Protect page.
The congregation is responsible for ensuring that there is a suitable Fire Safety Risk Assessment (FSRA) in place for their church buildings. Congregations should review and update their FSRA regularly, and in particular when there is a change in the use or occupation of their church building. Congregations should also review their FSRA before reopening their church buildings and consider the following questions:
- How many people can you have in your church buildings at any one time once physical distancing precautions are in place and in line with Scottish Government restrictions?
- Is there the capacity to help anyone with a disability and anyone who may require assistance in an emergency?
- Will anyone in your church buildings be by themselves and, if so, will this create any additional fire safety risk?
- Will there be an increase or decrease in the volume of materials being used or stored in your church buildings? For example, will you be using more chairs or fewer chairs or are you storing additional food items as part of a community food bank?
- Will items that are normally in your church buildings be stored elsewhere in the building? For example, will you be stacking chairs or storing items in places where they would not normally be stored?
- Will storing and using hand sanitisers or alcohol-based hand gels create additional fire safety risks within your church buildings?
- Will physical distancing create any additional fire safety risk? For example, will people have to wait outside your building before they can safely enter, or will you need to position chairs close to an emergency exit?
- How will physical distancing impact on your emergency evacuation procedures?
- Will the precautions that you put in place impact on how the fire service will be able to access your church buildings in case of an emergency?
- What additional training or support will you require for anyone who will be assisting members of your congregation or visitors in case of an emergency?
This is not an exhaustive list and there may be other factors that you might need to consider depending on your own circumstances and arrangements.
The congregation should maintain their current systems and controls already in place for fire safety such as their fire detection system, emergency lighting and fire extinguishers. The congregation should also review and update their FSRA as we move through the different phases of the Scottish Government’s four-phased approach to releasing COVID-19 restrictions. Further advice and guidance on FSRA can be found in the Church of Scotland General Trustees Health and Safety Toolkit
Legionella and water safety
If congregations already have a water safety management plan in place, then it is important that you continue to follow the control measures that it describes.
If your water supply has not been isolated during the closure of your church buildings, then it is important that you take reasonable steps to ensure that your water supply is safe. Therefore, congregations should arrange to:
- Run all water outlets for a minimum of 20 minutes. This includes all hot and cold taps and any showers that may be in your church buildings.
- Hot water systems should be set to a minimum of 600C
- Hot water temperature from all taps should reach at least 500c within one minute
- Cold-water temperature from all cold-water taps should be below 200C within two minutes
- If possible, windows and doors should be opened when running taps to ensure that the area is well ventilated.
If the temperature of the water is outwith any of these temperatures, then there is a risk that Legionella bacterium may be present in your water system. Further advice on Legionella is available from the HSE website.
If your church buildings’ water is supplied by a private water supply, then as well as the risk from Legionella bacterium, you should also ensure that any water treatment facilities installed in your church buildings have been serviced and are working properly.
Cleaning and disinfection
The appropriate cleaning and disinfection of all church buildings are important infection prevention and control measures against |COVID-19. Congregations should consider what arrangements and resources would be required to clean and disinfect their church buildings before, during and after their church buildings have been used. The following principles should help you prepare for the cleaning and disinfection of your church buildings:
- Church buildings should be cleaned as normal with a detergent and disinfectant that is active against bacteria and viruses. It is important that the correct dilution rates are used, and contact time is followed as different cleaning chemicals may have different instructions. You should also follow any instructions on the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves, face coverings and/or apron.
- All areas of the church building that are to be open to members of your congregation and visitors should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before reopening your church buildings each day
- Congregations may decide to close certain areas of their buildings to reduce the level of cleaning required
- Particular attention should be given to the all hand touch sites such as door handles, grab-rails, light switches, chairs and tables. These should be cleaned and disinfected regularly whilst the church building is open, and not just when opening and closing the building.
- Before closing the church building at the end of the day, the areas that have been open should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. However, you may consider closing your church building for 72 hours before cleaning and disinfection as an additional control measure. This would allow any active COVID-19 viruses present on any surfaces to be reduced to a safer level. This would only be suitable if you can be certain that no one will be accessing your church buildings for at least 72 hours. Upon reopening the church building, all areas and surfaces should be cleaned with detergent and disinfectant as normal.
- Historical articles, fixtures and fittings in your building may require the use of specialist cleaning materials. Please contact the General Trustees for further information.
- Ideally, disposable cleaning equipment such as cloths should be used. However, if this is not possible, then all cleaning equipment must be cleaned and disinfected after use. Re-usable cloths should be laundered in a washing machine using the warmest setting possible and dried completely before reusing. Ideally, laundered cloths should be steam-ironed and kept in a clean bag before reusing.
- You may find it beneficial to implement a cleaning schedule for each area of your church building to assist those involved with cleaning.
Congregations should consider the risk of COVID-19 transmission from fabrics and soft furnishings within your church buildings. If members of your congregation and visitors to your church building follow good hand hygiene practices and wear a face covering, then the risk of virus particles transmitting on to fabrics is greatly reduced. Congregations should temporarily remove pew cushions as an additional control measure to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection. If your church buildings have fabric chairs, then current evidence suggests that unless these have been visually soiled, you should continue to clean these as you normally would with, for example, a vacuum cleaner with a soft brush attachment. Congregations may also wish to consider steam cleaning fabric chairs every so often as an additional infection prevention and control measure.
Before any church building reopens, the areas of the building that you will reopen to members of your congregation and visitors should be thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and well ventilated. If you do not have access to a water supply within your church building, then you should consider how you can effectively clean and disinfect the building.
The use of fogging devices
A number of congregations have enquired about the use of fogging or misting machines as a means to clean and disinfect their church building. Both the World Health Organisation and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have raised concerns over the use of such technology as they may create a false sense of security regarding cleanliness and safety. Although fogging and misting technology has been used successfully in clinical and non-clinical settings, surfaces must still be cleaned to remove any grease or dirt, which would otherwise render the chemicals used for fogging and misting ineffective. It is up to each congregation to decide what methods of cleaning and disinfection should be used within their church buildings. If the congregation decides to use fogging or misting technology, then they must undertake a full risk assessment and consider the risks of using such chemicals, any PPE that may be required, first-aid requirements, the training of those using the machines and how to deal with any accidents involving the chemicals. We will not be able to offer any further advice or assistance with regards to purchasing or using fogging and misting machines for cleaning and disinfecting church buildings.
Congregations should consider how the additional cleaning required for reopening their church buildings could be undertaken. For example, will you need to employ additional cleaning staff or will you ask volunteers to help with the cleaning of your church buildings? Further advice on employing additional cleaning staff, amending the cleaning contract that you already have in place or working with cleaners and volunteers in the high-risk group can be obtained from the Law Department.
Heating and ventilation
Congregations must take reasonable steps to ensure that the heating system that is installed in their church building does not create additional risk of COVID-19 transmission by increasing excessive hot air circulation.
Generally, those church buildings with radiant heating systems and/or underfloor heating systems may continue to use their heating system as normal as they will not create additional air movement. Those church buildings that rely on a natural convection heating system or fan-assisted radiators should ensure that the heating system is disabled before the building is used. Congregations with natural convection or fan-assisted radiators should head to the building before the building is opened for use and turn the heating system off whilst the building is occupied. Congregations may wish to either purchase or hire additional temporary heating for the buildings during the winter months to ensure the comfort of those attending their church buildings. Congregations should also advise those attending church that the heating may not be switched on so that they can make an informed choice as to appropriate clothing.
Further information regarding heating and ventilation can be obtained by emailing the Church of Scotland General Trustees (email@example.com).
There is a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission whilst being indoors and it is important that congregations take reasonable steps to ensure that their church buildings are well ventilated when in use. Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the HSE state that good ventilation and increasing the supply of fresh air can reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission. It is a legal requirement that all buildings are adequately ventilated to improve the health, safety and wellbeing of everyone inside the building.
Ventilation removes stale air, which may be carrying the virus, and replaces it with fresh air. There is strong advice that we should be supplying as much fresh air as possible to indoor spaces to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The best way to achieve this is by opening doors and windows wherever it is possible to do so safely, to increase total airflow and bring in fresh air. This advice applies to both small rooms and to the Sanctuary itself. Natural ventilation, by opening windows, should be implemented. A window open at either side of a room will give good cross ventilation. High-level openings can often be less draughty but equally effective. If the windows need some maintenance to enable them to be used, then this should be carried out. However, fire doors must not be used as a means to improve airflow and ventilation.
Congregations should let everyone who is attending or visiting their church buildings know that the reason for increasing the level of fresh air within the building is to help control the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Visitors and those attending the church building can then decide if they should wear warmer clothing whilst inside the church building.
Where there are mechanical systems for ventilation or heating, these need to be adjusted to maximise fresh air. Recycled air should not be used. Advice from the specialist servicing the heating and ventilation equipment can be sought to make the necessary adjustments.
The important thing is to look at the church building and see where doors and windows can open and be used to bring in fresh air, improve the ventilation and make the spaces as safe as possible for those inside. The HSE has published additional advice regarding ventilation which some congregations may find useful.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
The correct use of suitable PPE is an effective infection prevention and control measure against COVID-19. However, congregations should have a sensitive discussion with members of their congregation about the type of PPE that may be required, and how this can be used appropriately and safely in the church environment. PPE should only be considered once all other administrative control measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene have been considered. The congregation should record in their risk assessment if PPE is being provided and for what purpose The following principles should help you decide what PPE may be required and used in your church buildings:
- There are some situations when the use of gloves would be important, such as when cleaning or when handling money. However, gloves should not be routinely used in church buildings as they may offer a false sense of security to those who wear them. Instead, congregations should focus on promoting hand washing and good hygiene practices. Individuals may decide to wear gloves for other reasons such as if they have sensitive or broken skin, or if they are suffering from a dermatological condition. Only nitrile gloves should be worn for infection prevention and control purposes. Latex gloves should not be used in church premises due to the increased risk to those who may be allergic to latex products.
- Facemasks protect the wearer from potential exposure to COVID-19 whereas face coverings offer some protection to other people who may be around someone who coughs or sneezes. Medical facemasks should not be worn unless there is a specific reason for their use. The congregation may decide to keep a small supply of non-medical facemasks in their buildings in case of emergencies.
- The HSE has advised that KN95 facemasks must not be used for PPE purposes, as they do not comply with the relevant European standard. KN95 masks are readily available online, including though several discount websites. If you already have a supply of these masks in the church building, you are advised to dispose of these sensibly.
- Disposable aprons should not normally be routinely worn; however, they may be useful when cleaning or when responding to an emergency, or when undertaking cleaning and disinfection activities
- If the congregation decides to use PPE, then it is important that they ensure that people follow the manufacturer’s instructions on their correct storage, use and disposal. Congregations are responsible for ensuring that anyone who uses PPE knows how to use it safely and for what purpose.
Hand hygiene and general safety precautions
Once congregations have decided that they wish to reopen their church buildings, it is essential that they plan how they will communicate, promote and ensure that everyone who attends or visits their buildings can demonstrate good hand hygiene practices and follow the general safety precautions highlighted in this guidance document. Congregations should ensure that:
- Hand washing facilities including hot running water, soap and drying facilities are available to use. If you do not have a running water supply in your church buildings they may still reopen; however, alcohol-based hand gels must be readily available.
- Alcohol-based hand gels must be readily available throughout the areas of the church buildings that are open to members of the congregation and visitors. Alcohol-based hand gels should not be placed in toilets.
- Appropriate signage is in place reminding those who are attending or visiting your church buildings to wash their hands or use alcohol-based hand gels upon entry and when leaving the building
- Appropriate signage is in place reminding those who access your church buildings that a face covering should be used whilst inside the building
- It is a legal requirement that those visiting enclosed public spaces, including church buildings, wear an appropriate face covering. However, those with certain medical conditions may be exempt from this requirement.
- Appropriate measures are in place to ensure that physical distancing (2 metres) can be observed at all times and in all areas of your church buildings that are open to members of your congregation and visitors. This includes all areas where people enter, occupy and leave your buildings. You should also consider accessibility and if people can safely use any wheelchair or passenger lifts inside your church buildings whilst safely maintaining physical distance.
Alcohol-based hand gels with a minimum alcohol (ethanol) content of 60% are recommended for use in the effective control of COVID-19. We are aware that some congregations may find it difficult to source an adequate supply of alcohol-based hand gel and the availability of this should be a determining factor in whether your church buildings should reopen. Although alternative hand gels are available, it is important that congregations are confident that whatever type they intend to use, it is safe, and will provide a similar level of decontamination and protection to alcohol-based hand gels. Medical grade alcohol-based hand gels and those alcohol-based hand gels with a very high ethanol concentration (greater than 80%) should not be used if possible, as this may pose a fire safety risk.
The easiest way to promote the 2 metres physical distancing requirement would be to use appropriate tape and signs in and around your building. However, please be mindful of the historical nature of your church building, and that placing tape on the floor and on some pews/surfaces may cause significant damage.
The Church of Scotland has designed a number of signs and posters that congregations can download and print for use in church buildings.
Congregations must ensure that any waste management contract is reinstated before you reopen your church buildings. General waste, including cleaning waste can be disposed of as you would under normal circumstances. If your local authority collects your waste, then you should advise them that your church buildings are reopening.
If a member of your congregation or a visitor to your church building becomes ill whilst inside your building, then any waste created from cleaning and disinfection must be double bagged, labelled and left in a secure place inside your church building for at least 72 hours before being placed outside for collection.
Useful Information and Appendices
We have produced other guidance on Reshaping Church Life which covers aspects congregational life and community support. We provide the following appendices on reopening church buildings, distancing, trace and protect policies, weekly buildings checks and health risks available as downloads:
First Published: 29 Jan 2021
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