Bay Area church attendance still lags behind pre-pandemic levels as omicron variant spreads

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- We are now in the thick of the holiday season and for many that will mean attending worship services. Despite the relatively high vaccination rates in the Bay Area church, mosque, and synagogue attendance still lags far behind pre-pandemic levels.

Nearly two years into the pandemic there are more empty seats in worship centers today than prior to the pandemic, signaling worshipers are reluctant to return.

"Some communities are still very concerned and weary about coming back and they're really quite cautious. Others are really just coming back in droves," said Bishop Oscar Cantú of the Diocese of San Jose.

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Bishop Cantú said despite ongoing COVID safety protocols like masking up and proper spacing between parishioners, South Bay mass attendance is averaging between 60% to 90% of pre-pandemic levels, depending on the church and the congregation.

"We're trying to keep that balance of inviting people back. And yet maintaining the safety protocol," he said.

Now concerns over the omicron variant ahead of the Christmas holiday are throwing congregations another curveball.

An ABC7 News Data Team analysis of cell phone information estimates attendance at worship centers is down 22% nationwide, comparing January 2020 attendance to October 2021.

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In Santa Clara County there has been a 24% decrease in church attendance.

Alameda, Contra Costa, Napa and Solano counties have seen near identical dips in attendance over the same time period.

"I still think we have a long way to go to be at the attendance of pre-pandemic levels," said Rabbi Moshe Langer of Chabad SF.

Rabbi Langer said attendance for services at the synagogue are only half of pre-pandemic levels, despite San Francisco having one of the highest vaccination rates in the Bay Area.

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"Our number one goal is to connect people and create community. So it's been very difficult for us to do that, with all the different variants coming out," said Langer.

According to the ABC7 News Data Team analysis San Francisco had one of the lowest dips in attendance at worship centers at just 5%, followed by highly-vaccinated Marin County at a 6% dip in attendance and San Mateo County with a 9% dip.

"My wish is that San Francisco and the Bay Area can hopefully heal from this pandemic," Lander added.

The Rabbi said he's beginning to see that healing.

He was able to welcome more than a thousand people to light the Bill Graham 'mama menorah' in person for Chanukkah this year, whereas last year the event was only live streamed.

In the South Bay, services continue to be live streamed across the diocese and some congregations continue to worship outdoors to slow the spread as the church looks ahead to 2022.

"I'm hoping for, in simple terms, a kinder, gentler society" said Cantú.

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