‘A dangerous environment’: As churches reopen, coronavirus outbreaks are sprouting and some are keeping doors shut

Opinions are mixed as houses of worship are searching for new ways to worship.

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In this June 7, 2020 photo, a hundred faithful sit while minding social distancing, listening to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez celebrate Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the first Mass held in English at the site since the re-opening of churches, in downtown Los Angeles. Attendance at the Mass is limited to 100 people.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

At a church in Sacramento, California, that has been closed for in-person services since March, congregants occasionally still stop by to pray outside and try to capture a sense of fellowship they dearly miss.

In Nashville, Tennessee, the pastor of an Anglican church has been handing out Communion in the parking lot for weeks.

South of Atlanta, the animated pastor of a 3,000-member congregation tries to summon every ounce of enthusiasm in his body to deliver a lively, music-filled service in front of a live audience of no one, hoping his message and spirit come through on various technology platforms.

None of those are ideal options, but they beat becoming the source of an outbreak of COVID-19.

Almost 40 places of worship and religious events have been linked to more than 650 U.S. cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began, according to tracking by the New York Times. Along with the nationwide surge in infections that has followed the loosening of restrictions aimed at combating the virus, outbreaks connected to churches have sprouted at several spots.

Those include a Pentecostal church in northeastern Oregon tied to at least 236 positive tests; five flareups linked to churches in West Virginia, the largest one resulting in 51 infections; more than 50 cases stemming from an evangelical church outside San Antonio where the pastor allowed hugging again; a large worship service in Cleveland, Tennessee, that appears to have generated at least a dozen cases, including the pastor, who said he stopped counting after 12; a Christian camp in Missouri that had to shut down after 82 campers, counselors and staffers contracted the virus despite taking a number of precautions.

All those outbreaks except for the one at the camp occurred in June.

Figuring out ‘how to worship in safer ways’

Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California-San Francisco, said the coronavirus thrives in the typical setting of a house of worship – indoors, with a multitude of people gathered in close proximity, often singing, which can expel virus-carrying droplets.

Add to that practices traditional to some religions, like shaking hands, taking Communion and dipping the host in a chalice with wine, and you have an ideal breeding ground for the virus.

“All the things we’re learning about the virus now make it more clear how much churches and the types of gatherings churches represent provide a more dangerous environment for viral transmission,’’ Bibbins-Domingo said. “We have to figure out how to worship in safer ways, and right now in-person, in large groups, in an enclosed building is not a safe place.’’

Be it by government decree or their own discretion, many houses of worship throughout the country have remained closed or operated at significantly reduced capacity during the pandemic. On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom included churches among the organizations that had to shut down in most of the state because of a spike in infections. Churches had been allowed to reopen under certain conditions in late May.

Oftentimes, even when congregants are welcome back, many have been reluctant to return.

Church visits haven’t come close to returning to the norm, lingering at around minus 40%. Activities such as visiting restaurants and clothing and shoe stores have bounced back stronger, both at minus 23%.

“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,’’ said Thomas McKenzie, pastor of the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville.

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McKenzie’s church, with a congregation of 500, has done extra sanitizing, required face masks, limited capacity, removed seats to allow for more social distance and changed the way Communion is handed out, including distributing the host in the parking lot to those who don’t want to come in.

“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,’’ said McKenzie, who wears gloves and a mask while preaching.

Still, the biggest turnout since reopening May 31 has been 45 – five short of the current limit – with a low of 12. For the first time ever this year, the church is streaming services.

That has been a common tool for houses of worship in the age of the coronavirus: Facebook and YouTube serve as platforms to reach worshipers who can’t or won’t attend in person.

With the rising number of cases in the Atlanta metro area, T.J. McBride says it’s unlikely he’ll preach in person again until next year. That’s a shame, because the pastor of Tabernacle of Praise Church International, about 20 miles south of Atlanta, feeds off his mostly Black congregation of 3,000 in delivering his energetic sermons.

Performing for the cameras without an audience doesn’t provide much immediate feedback.

“It’s been 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. I do two Zoom calls a day with members of our church, and what gives me joy and strength is they tell me they’re enjoying the service, they enjoy the message and our presentation.’’

McBride said six members of his church have died of COVID-19, and many other families have lost loved ones. It was especially painful not to be able to comfort them in person, having to rely on phone conversations and hearing how congregants couldn’t bid a proper goodbye to their relatives who died because of restrictions on funeral homes.

But McBride is aware the coronavirus has taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color, and he’s wary of reopening any time soon, even though legally he’s allowed to.

“We don’t want to be the cause of anyone getting this disease,’’ he said.

On Tuesday, one of the nation’s largest churches, Atlanta’s multi-site North Point Ministries, said it won’t reopen for in-person services the rest of the year because of the virus.

Some houses of worship stay shut

A much smaller place of worship, the 1,200-member South Sacramento Christian Center, has kept its doors shut since mid-March but continued its community outreach by distributing bags of food and helping set up a coronavirus testing site for its mostly Black and Latino congregation.

Pastor Les Simmons said challenging times like this, with a pandemic that has wrecked the economy and led to millions of job losses, are when people most need their church’s embrace. But his followers have had to settle for virtual hugs and remote words of wisdom when dealing with those challenges and the outrage over the police killings of unarmed African Americans such as George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

“It’s very hard because people are definitely used to closeness and the idea of being touch-deprived is very real right now,’’ Simmons said. “It’s been very difficult for folks to accept that.’’

Simmons said the lack of a physical presence has also led to financial hardships for his church, which has missed the donations of members who prefer to bring them in person. Some of them may also now be unemployed. Through those difficulties, the Christian Center continues to offer five services a week, all remotely.

And while some congregants come by at times to have a moment of reflection outside the closed doors, Simmons takes heart in knowing there have been no major outbreaks among the congregation, and he emphasizes a church is more than just a building.

“Many Scripture passages I’ve seen show the priest or the prophet was able to connect with the people without being by the people,’’ he said. “Our faith is between us and God, not necessarily us and a place.’’

Not everybody is ready to accept that without a challenge, sometimes of the legal variety. Trump deemed places of worship “essential’’ institutions on May 22 and threatened to override governors who didn’t allow them to open, even though it’s far from certain he has such authority.

Lawsuits filed to challenge restrictions

Churches in California, Illinois, Washington state, Virginia and Nevada have been among those filing lawsuits contending restrictions on in-person services violate the right to free exercise of religion granted by the First Amendment.

Bernadette Meyler, a constitutional law expert at Stanford University, said the state’s right to safeguard the health and welfare of its residents has long been established and takes precedence as long as the regulations in that interest are applied equally. For example, Meyler said, limitations on gatherings at churches couldn’t be more stringent than at movie theaters.

“The way the Supreme Court has interpreted the free exercise clause since about 1990, when there was a case about this issue, is they have said that as long as the state or a locality is passing a neutral law of general applicability, that’s going to be presumptively valid,’’ Meyler said.

There have been no documented reports of widespread defiance by churches of the states’ mandates aimed at curbing spread of the virus, only occasional instances, as appears to be the case with the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City, Oregon, where the state’s largest outbreak originated.

But some houses of worship have resisted calls for more prudent approaches, such as mandating the use of masks.

Robert Jeffress, the prominent pastor of First Baptist Dallas, said his megachurch has encouraged but not required those in attendance to wear masks, adding that about two-thirds of them do. The downtown church, which provides several online ministries, closed for in-person services in mid-March 15 and reopened June 7, reducing the combined capacity of its two auditoriums from 4,500 to about 1,400 in a nod to the virus.

However, when the church hosted Vice President Mike Pence for a June 28 event dubbed Freedom Sunday that was part religious service, part political rally, about 2,500 attended, by Jeffress’ estimation. Photos showed social distance was kept only by some.

Jeffress said criticism of the event has proved unfounded, with only once case of COVID-19 remotely linked to it.

“People were saying we were being irresponsible, we were going to be a super spreader of the virus. Of course, they said nothing about the protests of thousands of people in our streets shouting at the top of their lungs without a mask,’’ Jeffress said. “Unless government is willing to outlaw protests and stop the presses at USA TODAY, they have no right to shut down churches. We’re all protected by the same First Amendment.’’

‘Opening a church normally is risky’

Ogbonnaya Omenka, an associate professor and public health specialist at Butler University, said defeating the virus will require for Americans to think less about their individual liberties and more about the common good. He acknowledged that’s complicated considerably by the politicization of the pandemic and of such proven measures as wearing masks.

Omenka also pointed out that mitigation attempts by churches such as sanitizing, spacing and mask requirements are limited by the reality that they can’t control what their congregants do outside the services and how much they’re exposed to the virus.

“So there’s no safety net that would completely eliminate the threat of a resurgence when you reopen places of worship,’’ he said.

More troubling to Omenka, though, is the cognitive dissonance he notices among people who don’t want to be inconvenienced by the changes the virus’ existence demands. Reopening, he said, does not mean a return to normal, not for quite a while.

“Opening a church normally is risky, so let’s figure out another option,’’ Omenka said. “Let’s do the service outside. But some may say, ‘Well, it’s raining and we don’t have enough seating for everybody to be under a canopy. Let’s go back inside.’ No. 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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