Churches amid the pandemic: Some outbreaks, many challenges

NEW YORK (AP) — Crowded bars and house parties have been defined as culprits in spreading the coronavirus. Meat packing plants, prisons and nursing homes are known hot spots. Then there’s the complicated case of America’s churches.

The the greater part of these churches have cooperated with health authorities and successfully protected their congregations. Yet from the earliest phases of the pandemic, and continuing to this day, some worship services and other religious activities have already been identified as resources of local outbreaks.

They are certainly not at the top of the set of problematic activities across the U.S., but they have posed challenges for government leaders and public health officials whose guidelines and orders are occasionally challenged as encroachments on religious liberty.

“If we wanted to have zero risks, the safest thing would be to never open our doors,” said prominent Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress. “The question is how can you balance risk with the very real need to worship.”

In the past a couple of weeks alone, there has been two notable church-government confrontations in California.

San Francisco’s city attorney sent a cease-and-desist order in late June to the Roman Catholic archdiocese, alleging that a number of its churches had violated a local ban on large indoor gatherings. The archdiocese promised to comply.

A day or two later, state officials temporarily banned “indoor singing and chanting activities” at all places of worship, prompting some pastors to defy the rule.

Evangelical pastor Samuel Rodriguez said worshippers at his Sacramento megachurch joined in singing hymns on July 5, even as many of them wore face masks and obeyed social-distancing guidelines.

“To forbid singing in a church is morally reprehensible,” Rodriguez said. “That is how we petition heaven.”

The extent to which religious gatherings have contributed to the pandemic’s toll may never be known with any precision. But there’s no question they will have played a task throughout, internationally as well as in the United States, whilst myriad houses of worship halted in-person services for safety reasons.

Of the first wave of cases in South Korea in February, several thousand were members of the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Hundreds of other cases were connected to a Muslim missionary movement event in late February in Malaysia that was attended by about 16,000 people from numerous East Asian countries.

In the second week of March, before warnings and lockdown orders proliferated in the U.S., 35 of the 92 people who attended events at a rural Arkansas church developed COVID-19, and three of them died, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report issued in May.

More recently, in mid-June, a small-town church in northeastern Oregon became the epicenter of the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak when 236 people connected to the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church tested positive.

According to the Observer newspaper in nearby La Grande, the church in Island City had held religious services, a marriage and a graduation ceremony in the weeks preceding the outbreak, sometimes with increased than 100 people in attendance in defiance of state restrictions on gatherings.

Union County, with a citizenry of 25,000 people, had recorded fewer than 25 cases throughout the pandemic prior to the church outbreak. Within a couple of weeks, it had Oregon’s highest per capita rate of coronavirus infections.

Also in June, West Virginia’s health department announced outbreaks linked to five churches in various parts of the state. The biggest was at Graystone Baptist Church in Lewisburg with 51 cases, three of them fatal.

In several cases, churches that resumed in-person services opted to close again after outbreaks. Among them:

— A church and an administrative office associated with the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee, which can be the home base for the Pentecostal denomination. No official case count has been released, but a senior leader of the denomination, General Overseer Tim Hill, confirmed that the number of verified cases keeps growing, and that several church leaders were among those seriously ill. One pastor, Ernie Varner of Lenoir City, Tennessee, died Friday, six days after posting on Facebook, “I’m in the ICU with COVID. Please pray for me.”

— Calvary Chapel, an evangelical church in Universal City, Texas. It reopened in early May simply to close anew in late June after dozens of staff and churchgoers tested positive, including Pastor Ron Arbaugh and his wife. Arbaugh says that he regrets telling worshippers last month they might resume the tradition of hugging one another during an interlude of mid-service socializing.

— Holy Family Catholic Church in Las Vegas. The diocese announced Thursday that the church would be closed indefinitely following a priest who celebrated Mass this week tested positive.

— First Baptist Church of Tillmans Corner in Mobile, Alabama. It resumed in-person services May 17 after the governor gave a statewide green light, but recently canceled them at the very least through July 31 after more than 20 of the congregation’s 1,500 members tested positive. Pastor Derek Allen wrote an article describing the outbreak as a “harrowing and demoralizing journey,” and offering advice to other pastors: “Assume every sniffle is COVID-19, and act quickly. We’ve learned that the tests take a long time, and false positives are possible along side false negatives.”

Another Baptist church, First Baptist Dallas, was in the spotlight June 28 when it hosted Vice President Mike Pence at its annual Freedom Sunday festivities. Most of the 2,400 attendees wore face masks, however, many criticism surfaced after the choir sang without masks.

Jeffress, the church’s pastor and a prominent evangelical conservative with close ties to President Donald Trump, said the choir and orchestra had been tested for COVID-19 beforehand. The church said a few who tested positive did not indulge in the event.

Jeffress bristled at the indisputable fact that choirs should really be temporarily barred.

“Choirs will always be a part of worship for us,” he said. “We think it’s possible to still have them but do it in a safe way.”

A few days after the Freedom Sunday event, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order requiring people wear face masks in most public settings — with a few exceptions, including participants in religious services.

Some churches, through their physical attributes and the decisions of their leaders, have been in a position to minimize risks as worship resumes.

In Incline Village, Nevada, along the north shore of Lake Tahoe, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church took advantage of a unique feature to relaunch scaled-back, in-person services this month: its outdoor mountain amphitheater chapel shaded by pine trees.

Church officials took preventative measures such as moving the log-bench pews farther apart, capping attendance at 50 and requiring worshippers have their temperature taken, employ hand sanitizer and wear masks. There was no Eucharist or passage of the peace, and the usual post-service coffee hour was held by video conference.

“Good morning, children of God,” the Rev. Sarah Dunn, the church’s rector, said from behind a plexiglass screen, welcoming parishioners back again to the socially distanced service July 5 after 16 Sundays apart. She acknowledged feeling “mixed emotions”: apprehension as the virus remains a threat, but joy at being able to gather in the sacred space.

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Associated Press reporters Peter Orsi in Truckee, California, Anthony Izaguirre in Charleston, West Virginia, and Sara Cline in Salem, Oregon, contributed to the report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this article.

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