Outbreaks Sprout As Churches Reopen, Some Keep Their Doors Shut

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Pastor McKenzie on ministering during COVID: “I try to minister people as if, if I breathed on them, I could kill them.”

USA Today reports on American churches’ various responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. As some churches reopen their doors for in-person worship, others have continued virtual or outdoor gatherings.

  • According to tracking by the New York Times, nearly 40 places of worship and religious events are linked to about 650 COVID-19 cases throughout the United States.
  • These pockets of outbreaks follow the loosening of restrictions originally instituted to combat COVID-19, a loosening connected to a broader surge in cases in various states of the Union.
  • For example, in June a northeastern Oregon Pentecostal church was tied to at least 236 positive COVID-19 tests, and in July a Christian camp in Missouri closed early when 82 campers, staff, and counselors contracted COVID-19 in spite of taking numerous precautions.
  • Part of the difficulty is that typical worship settings—indoors, with a multitude gathered in close proximity, often with hugs or handshakes, sometimes singing—is an environment where the COVID-19 virus can quickly spread.

In light of these ongoing risks, some churches and congregations are choosing to “worship in safer ways,” as University of California-San Francisco epidemiology professor Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo expressed.

  • For example, Thomas McKenzie, pastor of the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, noted that “The vast majority of people in our congregation are still not comfortable coming to a worship service, even though we have a very clean setup.”
  • McKenzie said that when he ministers, he wears gloves and a mask. He said, “My theory is I have to act like I have the coronavirus, and I try to minister people as if, if I breathed on them, I could kill them.”
  • And T.J. McBride, pastor of Tabernacle of Praise Church International near Atlanta, Georgia, has taken to conducting worship services for his normally 3,000 strong congregation by remote means over Zoom.
  • Preaching without an audience is “a real challenge, because you don’t have anybody saying, ‘Amen, preacher,’ or any of that stuff,” McBride said. But “this is the new normal,” he added. And he gets “joy and strength” when his congregants tell him “they’re enjoying the service,” even if it’s remote.
  • Although Georgia has no legal restrictions on worship services, McBride has continued to operate remotely. He is especially cautious because six of his congregants have died of COVID-19 contracted elsewhere, and many others have lost loved ones.
  • Pastor Les Simmons of the South Sacramento Christian Center has also suspended in-person services since mid-March and continues to, even while California’s COVID-19 related restrictions have loosened, including those on worship services.
  • Simmons said, “Many Scripture passages I’ve seen show the priest or the prophet was able to connect with the people without being by the people… faith is between us and God, not necessarily us and a place.”

Nevertheless, others have challenged precautions and restrictions surrounding in-person worship. President Donald J. Trump declared churches “essential” on May 22 and has threatened to override governors’ executive orders that impact in-person worship, although his legal grounds to do so are murky.

  • USA Today also explains that churches in California, Illinois, Washington state, Virginia and Nevada have been among those to file lawsuits against executive orders restricting in-person gathering as a violation of the First Amendment right to free religious exercise.
  • However, Bernadette Meyler, a constitutional law expert at Stanford University, believes that Supreme Court rulings make it clear that as long as the public health measures have been applied generally and neutrally target both secular and religious institutions, such measures will be “presumptively valid.”
  • So far, USA Today has found “no documented reports of widespread defiance by churches of the states’ mandates aimed at curbing spread of the virus,” though there are isolated examples.
  • And where states have no restrictions on in-person worship, some churches have resisted other prudent measures, such as mask-wearing.
  • For example, the high profile First Baptist Dallas megachurch has “encouraged” patrons to wear masks, though only about two-thirds do so according to Pastor Robert Jeffress.
  • Patrons also practiced social distancing unevenly in the Freedom Sunday rally where Vice President Mike Pence spoke, though Jeffress deflected criticism by pointing out that only one COVID-19 case has been linked to the event, despite fears of a cluster outbreak.

Meanwhile, associate public health professor Ogbonnaya Omenka of Butler University believes that defeating COVID-19 will require Americans to think more about the public good. He points out that although churches can take precautions such as sanitizing, spacing, and wearing masks, they are unable to control whether congregants are risking themselves outside the church and by extension possibly carrying COVID-19 into worship spaces.

“Opening a church normally is risky, so let’s figure out another option,” he said. If an option, such as worshipping outside, were to become impractical due to circumstances such as rain, Omenka said, “Can we just accept that it’s OK to not have service for that day if it will keep the congregants healthy to come back next week?”

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