No hugs, handshakes as U.S. churches take precautions against coronavirus

ATLANTA, March 8 (Reuters) - With a wide smile and arms outstretched, but quickly dropped into double elbow bumps, James Harper warmly greets fellow congregants at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Sunday in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward neighborhood.

"We're all tight here," said Harper, 51, a salesman. "Normally it's nothing but deep hugs. But it's a different day now."

Churches across the United States are advising parishioners to avoid direct contact with fellow members as an oft-reiterated warning against spreading the coronavirus, which emerged in China last year and causes the sometimes deadly respiratory illness COVID-19.

At least 19 people have died out of about 450 reported cases in the United States. The outbreak has killed more than 3,600 worldwide.

Reverend Jeffery Ott, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, said that the biggest change on Sunday was omitting the ceremonial sharing of wine in the common cup, or chalice, during the Holy Communion service, as well as receiving the wafer or bread in the hand only, not the mouth.

"Traditionalist may want the service, but this is not just the flu," he said. "We are all responsible to stop the spread."

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Tokyo prepares for 2020 Olympics as coronavirus spreads
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Tokyo prepares for 2020 Olympics as coronavirus spreads
A man looks at an Olympic rings display installed off the shore of the Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo on February 28, 2020. - The International Olympic Committee is "committed" to holding the 2020 Games in Tokyo as planned despite the widening new coronavirus outbreak, the body's president has pledged. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 26: A woman wearing a face mask walks past the Olympic rings in front of the new National Stadium, the main stadium for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, on February 26, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Concerns that the Tokyo Olympics may be postponed or cancelled are increasing as Japan confirms 862 cases of Coronavirus (COVID-19) and as some professional sporting contests are being called off or rescheduled and some major Japanese corporations ask for people to work from home. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JANUARY 24: Fireworks explode as Olympic rings are illuminated for the first time to mark 6 months to go to the Olympic games at Odaiba Marine Park on January 24, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The New National Stadium, a venue for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, is seen from Shibuya Sky observation deck in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. The Japanese government has indicated it sees the next couple of weeks as crucial to containing the spread of COVID-19, which began in China late last year. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Tourists take pictures of the Olympics rings Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in the Odaiba section of Tokyo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
People wait in line to take pictures with the Olympic rings near the New National Stadium, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A woman removes her mask before taking pictures with the mascots of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo, Feb. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach delivers a statement on the COVID-19 situation during a meeting of the executive board at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne on March 3, 2020. - The COVID-19 which has already killed more than 3000 people in the World will be at the center of a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on March 3 and 4, 2020 in Lausanne less than five months before the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Tokyo. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
A cameraman films the Olympic Rings at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters in Lausanne on March 3, 2020. - The COVID-19 which has already killed more than 3000 people in the World will be at the center of a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on March 3 and 4, 2020 in Lausanne less than five months before the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Tokyo. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 01: A security guard wearing a face mask guards a road near the route of the Tokyo Marathon on March 1, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. The 2020 Tokyo Marathon has been restricted to elite runners only as measures get underway in Japan to combat the Covid-19 virus. A growing number of events and sporting fixtures have been cancelled or postponed while some businesses are closing or asking their employees to work from home. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also asked schools to close for around a month from tomorrow as coronavirus cases increase and concerns mount over the effect the outbreak will have on the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
This photo taken on February 29, 2020 shows a protester holding placards during a demonstration against the Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and nuclear energy, near the "J-Village" which will host the start of the Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture. - Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said on February 26 the torch relay scheduled to begin March 26 in Fukushima and travel across the country would not be cancelled, though he acknowledged adjustments might be necessary, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on February 29, 2020 shows a woman holding a placard during a demonstration against the Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and nuclear energy, near the "J-Village" which will host the start of the Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture. - Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said on February 26 the torch relay scheduled to begin March 26 in Fukushima and travel across the country would not be cancelled, though he acknowledged adjustments might be necessary, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
A masked security guard stands in front an entrance of the National Stadium, venue of the upcoming Olympics, in Tokyo on February 28, 2020. - The International Olympic Committee is "committed" to holding the 2020 Games in Tokyo as planned despite the widening new coronavirus outbreak, the body's president has pledged. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 27: A couple wearing face masks take photographs outside the Tokyo Dome where a number of events including pop concerts have been cancelled because of concerns over the Covid-19 virus, on February 27, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. A growing number of events and sporting fixtures are being cancelled or postponed around Japan while some businesses are asking their employees to work from home and some schools are closing as Covid-19 cases continue to increase and concerns mount over the possibility that the epidemic will force the postponement or even cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
A picture taken on February 26, 2020 shows the Olympics rings next to the IOC headquarters in Lausanne. - The COVID-19 which has already killed more than 3000 people in the World will be at the center of a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on March 3 and 4, 2020 in Lausanne less than five months before the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Tokyo. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 26: A pedestrian wearing a face mask walks past a display promoting the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games on February 26, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Concerns that the Tokyo Olympics may be postponed or cancelled are increasing as Japan confirms 862 cases of Coronavirus (COVID-19) and as some professional sporting contests are being called off or rescheduled and some major Japanese corporations ask for people to work from home. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 26: A woman wearing a face mask uses a smartphone as she takes a photograph in front of the Olympic rings at night on February 26, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Concerns that the Tokyo Olympics may be postponed or cancelled are increasing as Japan confirms 862 cases of Coronavirus (COVID-19) and as some professional sporting contests are being called off or rescheduled and some major Japanese corporations ask for people to work from home. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - 2020/02/25: view of barricades at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic / Paralympic Village construction site in Tokyo. After the events at the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship in Yokohama Harbour concerning the COVID-19 Coronavirus and the management of Japanese authorities, voices were raised if the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games should be relocated to a different country. Sparking a discussion internationally. (Photo by Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - 2020/02/17: Photos of women taken posing behind the Olympic Rings near the Japan Olympic Museum and the New National Stadium in Tokyo. The stadium will serve as the main stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies and for the track and field events at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. (Photo by Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A runner holding an Olympic torch practices lighting a cauldron during a rehearsal of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics torch relay in Tokyo on February 15, 2020. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
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The instructions, now widespread across archdioceses across the nation, involve changes to relatively new ceremonies, such as the exchange of peace, which was introduced in the 1960s, as well as age-old traditions such as Holy Communion that are at the core of Catholic ritual.

Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College and a former priest, said the new measures show how seriously the church is taking the risks of coronavirus.

"All of these things are traditions that many are sentimental about," he said. "But none of these symbols are essentials to the church."

Traditionally Catholics embrace or shake hands during the so-called "exchange of peace" while repeating the greeting "peace be with you."

But the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta is one of many that have told parishes to discourage physical contact during the ritual, which is designed to remind worshippers they are members of a community. Some dioceses want the "peace" ceremony eliminated all together until the coronavirus outbreak abates.

As an alternative to touching, the Archdiocese of New York is encouraging worshippers to wave at fellow parishioners during the greeting, said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Groome said that at his church in Boston, the congregation nods or trades fist-bumps.

"This is the responsible thing to do," he said.

In the Archdiocese of Miami, churches have been urged to empty the holy water fonts at the church doors as a precaution. When entering a church, many Catholics dip their fingers in the fonts and make the sign of the cross with the water which a priest had blessed. Experts say it is an obvious conduit for infection.

Keeping people healthy is more important than tradition, Reverend Ott said.

"Some of our older members might not like the changes but we have to be responsible," he said. 

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