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Lightfoot warns religious leaders she is prepared to enforce stay-at-home order

“I am urging you to stay the course. If there is a problem, I would rather be in conversation than in conflict,” the mayor wrote in a letter to religious leaders.

Dozens of members of the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church attend service on May 10, 2020
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has warned religious leaders she’s prepared to enforce the state’s stay-at-home order.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday likened holding in-person church services during the pandemic to “playing with a gun that’s fully loaded and cocked” and warned religious leaders she’s prepared to enforce the stay-at-home order.

Lightfoot refused to say what form that enforcement would take — not in a letter to religious leaders sent Thursday, and not in a follow-up conference call with reporters Friday.

It’s a politically perilous confrontation she is desperately trying to avoid by appealing to what she called the “better angels” of religious leaders and by confronting them with the cold, hard facts.

“We know that, when people are gathering, the risk goes up exponentially. And particularly, looking across the typical demographic of black churches in Chicago, it’s a lot of very faithful, but senior elders, many of whom have challenging underlying health conditions,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot noted 93% of Chicagoans who have died from the coronavirus have had underlying medical conditions.

“This is not playing Russian roulette. This is playing with a gun that’s fully loaded and cocked. It doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Lightfoot said she’s aware a “small handful” of churches have “advertised that they intend to hold services” Sunday in violation of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

She’s been in contact with all of them — by letter and by phone — to try to “engage them in a conversation rather than being in conflict.”

“We let them know what our expectation is. We’re hopeful that we will not have to take any kind of enforcement action. But if we have to, we will,” Lightfoot said.

Pressed on what form “enforcement action” might take, the mayor would only say there are “a number of tools that we have as a result of this pandemic.”

“My hope, as always, is that our better angels will prevail. That we’ll be able to educate people into compliance,” she said.

“I’d rather be in conversation than in conflict. That’s the hand that we’ve extended. ... I hope that they will come to us in the same spirit.”

In her “Dear Members of the Chicago Faith Community” letter, Lightfoot urged religious leaders to “stay the course” and continue holding virtual services rather than meeting in-person — where it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain social distance.

“I am resolute that I must enforce the rules of the governor’s stay-at-home order. To be fair to all, I simply cannot look away from noncompliance, no matter the source or the intention,” she wrote.

“Yes, limiting services and other important religious convenings — like funerals, baptisms, bat and bar mitzvahs, breaking fasts and weddings — is hard. But it remains every bit as important now as ever. ... This moment is very much about the cold reality of the facts ... how this virus is transmitted, and how ruthlessly it attacks.”

On Monday, Lightfoot had responded to Sunday services held the day before, in defiance of the order, by saying she hoped to educate religious leaders into compliance, avoiding mass arrests.

“We’re not gonna send in the police to arrest parishioners. People are exercising their faith, and I understand that,” she said then.

But the next day, the mayor made it clear she was serious about enforcing the governor’s order.

Her letter invites religious leaders to join her in a “conversation” about “what a gradual reopening will look like for protection of faith workers and congregants.”

The conversation began Friday during a phone call with religious leaders and will continue with the creation of what Lightfoot called a “working group across the various faith traditions to really get granular” about ways churches, mosques and temples can reopen safely.

“Making sure that we’ve got real guidance on everything from cleaning to face coverings,” Lightfoot said. “Can you sing with a mask? That was really the kind of level of detail that these faith leaders are likely thinking about.”