Before we take the plunge, let me say this: I have no existing quarrel with Shrine Mont. That said, its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is straight out of “Dumb and Dumber.”
In recent communiques, the retreat says it may open late this year, and that it’s following the pandemic closely. Okay fine, but that misses the mark.
Rosslyn, the other diocesan retreat and situs of the bishop’s residence, wisely announced several weeks ago that it is closed for the remainder of the year. And while I recognize that Shrine Mont often is one of the few local jobs available for youth in the area, it needs to close too.
The reality is that we are not in the late stages of the pandemic. We’re not even in the middle stages. Indeed, based on the relatively small percentage of the population infected, we are in the very early stages.
Nor is a vaccine or effective treatment a given. While odds favor both, the reality is that viruses remain potent, nimble foes, with the ability to mutate and otherwise respond to changing medical interventions. And while some Americans are already chafing at stay-at-home directives, viruses are able to play a long waiting game, with degraded forms of viruses even found in mummies.
To make matters worse, church attendance is recognized as a super-spreading event. While I am no fan of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and its feckless approach to governance, to its credit the diocese itself recognizes this in its announcements regarding regathering.
The problem with Shrine Mont, however, is that the very things that make it unique and fun are risky. That includes:
Socializing in close quarters and more,
Indeed, even check-in is risky when folks must gather in a hotel lobby, and I cannot see any way that rooms can be sanitized to a level that supports the volume of traffic that Shrine Mont experiences. Indeed, many of the rooms don’t even have adequate distancing between beds and outside windows, given that there is no air conditioning.
Moreover, while there seemingly is little community transmission of the virus in rural areas within Virginia, many of the big churches come from Richmond and NVA, both epicenters of the outbreak. Thus, Shrine Mont runs the risk of bringing clusters of cases into the Shenandoah Valley, with a very real possibility of infecting camp counselors and kitchen staff.
At the end of the day, church remains a super-spreading event, whether it occurs indoors at churches in Northern VA, or at the comparatively rural Shrine Mont. And neither will be safe for clergy and parishioners who are 65+ or who have chronic health diseases any time soon. And the risk of adverse publicity remains great, for a cluster of cases originating at Shrine Mont would garner headlines nationwide, and put the lie to the diocese’s claims of putting the needs of others first.
Then there is the issue of the unknown effects of the disease. With some patients reporting ongoing cognitive difficulties, kidney and lung damage, and inflammatory responses throughout the body, plus the recent deaths of children due to previously unrecognized manifestations of the disease, it’s much too early to think about “nice-to-have” events like Shrine Mont.
To make matters worse, Shrine Mont continues to hold out hope that it will have groups there this summer. But for the reasons referenced above, this is a profoundly bad idea, and the diocese, Susan Goff, and Shrine Mont all make themselves look stupid by hedging their bets.
But then, given that the diocese is okay with Bob Malm’s perjury on the grounds that he did not face criminal charges, and his appalling courtroom conduct, there’s little reason to suspect that it will ultimately act in a particularly ethical manner when it comes to Shrine Mont.
In the meantime, Shrine Mont needs to do the right thing, quit beating around the bush, and recognize that it simply cannot ensure a reasonable level of safety in the midst of a pandemic.