Churches face many chal­lenges amid out­breaks

The News Tribune - - Nation & World - BY DAVID CRARY As­so­ci­ated Press

Crowded bars and house par­ties have been iden­ti­fied 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 vast ma­jor­ity of these churches have co­op­er­ated with health au­thor­i­ties and suc­cess­fully pro­tected their con­gre­ga­tions. Yet from the ear­li­est phases of the pan­demic, some wor­ship ser­vices and other re­li­gious ac­tiv­i­ties con­tinue to be iden­ti­fied as sources of lo­cal out­breaks.

They are by no means at the top of the list of prob­lem­atic ac­tiv­i­ties across the U.S., but they have posed chal­lenges for government lead­ers and pub­lic health of­fi­cials whose guide­lines and or­ders are some­times 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 two weeks alone, there have been two no­table church-government con­fronta­tions in Cal­i­for­nia.

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

A few days 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 most 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 have played a role through­out, in­ter­na­tion­ally as well as in the United States, even as myr­iad houses of wor­ship halted in-person ser­vices for safety rea­sons.

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 midJune, a small-town church in north­east­ern Ore­gon be­came the epi­cen­ter of the state’s largest coro­n­avirus out­break when

236 peo­ple linked 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 wed­ding and a grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony in the weeks pre­ced­ing the out­break, some­times with more than 100 peo­ple in at­ten­dance in defiance of state re­stric­tions.

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