Mormons hold crowd-less conference to prevent coronavirus spread

SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ twice-annual conference will kick off Saturday without anyone attending in person to watch speeches from top leaders as the faith takes precautions to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

The speeches Saturday and Sunday will be livestreamed instead while only a few people are inside a small auditorium in Salt Lake City. Normally, the conference brings some 100,000 people to the church conference center to attend five sessions over two days.

It will be the first crowd-less conference since World War II, when wartime travel restrictions were in place. Flu epidemics forced the church to postpone the conference in 1919 by two months and cancel the conference in the fall of 1957, according to a church history of the conference.

Leaders from the Utah-based faith, which counts 16 million members worldwide, utilize the conference to provide spiritual guidance, underscore the religion’s key beliefs and, sometimes, announce new initiatives or rules.

The religion has been planning since last year to use this conference to commemorate the 200th anniversary of when their founder Joseph Smith, then a teenager, says he had a vision of God and Jesus Christ in the woods of upstate New York that led to the formation of the church 10 years later.

The revised plan is the latest illustration of how the coronavirus pandemic is altering worship practices around the world.

Like most religions, the faith known widely as the Mormon church has taken significant steps to prevent gatherings and religious activities that could contribute to the spread of COVID-19. The faith has shut down its temples that are used for the most sacred rituals including weddings, shuttered normal Sunday worship services at churches and brought home thousands of young people who were serving missions in foreign countries.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia. More than 56,000 people have died from the virus while more than 220,000 people worldwide have recovered, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.