As all 50 states have begun to lift some coronavirus restrictions, churches that have reopened in recent weeks have been forced to close again.
Two churches in Georgia and Texas that reopened in recent weeks have once again closed their doors after leaders and members tested positive for the coronavirus.
Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Houston, Texas, and Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in Ringgold, Georgia, announced in recent days that they would indefinitely suspend in-person services following the death of one priest and several positive COVID-19 tests among religious leaders and congregants.
The closings, which come as all 50 states have begun to lift some restrictions, highlight the dangers of reopening too quickly and fulfill the grim prediction of many medical experts that public gatherings are all but certain to cause new outbreaks and more deaths.
In Houston, Holy Ghost canceled services indefinitely last week after one of its priests, Father Donnell Kirchner, passed away on May 13. The church had previously resumed masses on May 2, one day after Texas’ stay-at-home order was allowed to expire. While Gov. Greg Abbott’s order excluded churches and houses of worship, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston had suspended all weekday and Sunday masses beginning on March 18, and only reopened to the public after Abbott’s reopening guidelines went into effect on May 1.
Kirchner’s cause of death is unknown, but the church said the 79-year-old priest had recently gone to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. The church acknowledged he could have been exposed to the coronavirus. “It is not clear if he was tested for COVID-19 at either facility. He returned to the residence he shared with seven other members of his religious order,” the archdiocese said in a statement.
All seven members of the order were then tested for COVID-19. Five were diagnosed with the virus, including two priests who had attended public masses at the church since May 2.
The church said it followed all “cleaning, sanitation and social distancing guidelines prescribed by State health officials since reopening on May 2nd,” and limited seating to 179 attendees, instead of the usual 900. Still, it wasn’t enough. Church leaders urged any congregation members who attended mass since the reopening to get tested for the virus as well.
“If anyone has attended masses in person at Holy Ghost Church since the reopening, we strongly encourage you to monitor your health for any symptoms and be tested for COVID-19, as a precautionary measure,” pastor William Bueche said in a statement.
In Georgia, Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle, an independent Baptist church about 20 miles outside of Chattanooga, Tenn., closed its doors on May 11, just two weeks after it restarted in-person services on April 26. Church representative Joan Lewis told The Christian Post on Monday that the church decided to suspend “in-person worship services for the foreseeable future” after learning several families had contracted the coronavirus.
The church described the closing as “an effort of extreme caution,” and expressed sympathies to the families battling the coronavirus. The church did not say how many families were affected, but told The Christian Post that only about 25% of congregants had attended in-person worship services in the time they had reopened.
The church, which only resumed in-person services after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp eased restrictions on nonessential businesses on April 24, defended its reopening, insisting it followed all guidelines. “All modes of social distancing were practiced and followed by the families attending,” the church said, including seating attendees six feet apart, keeping all doors open, and asking attendees to practice social distancing as they entered the church.
Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle also said it only reopened after examining the existing data and the number of cases in their area and determining it was safe to do. “Based on the current data that was shared and the low volume of cases in our area at the time, and in an effort to offer our families both options of either attending in-person services or streaming online, we resumed services in the Tabernacle a couple of weeks ago,” the church said in an official statement.
Georgia’s data, however, has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks after the Department of Public Health posted a misleading chart on its website suggesting cases were declining over time. In reality, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out, the chart listed the dates out of order, misrepresenting the data in such a way as to make it seem like the number of infections was going down. In fact, there was no clear downward trend. The agency has also incorrectly posted at least twice that children have died of the virus, while also sharing confusing information about the state’s death count.
Another graph on DPH’s page has also caused visitors to think that cases were dropping significantly, even though lower case numbers were the result of a lag in data collection. Collectively, the errors have raised concerns that the state’s data is being manipulated to conjure support for Gov. Kemp’s early easing of restrictions. The governor’s office insists it is not “selecting data and telling them how to portray it.”
Kemp, who ignored the advice of medical experts and local leaders as he began lifting restrictions, has come under fire for that decision, which has also hurt his standing with Georgia residents. A recent Washington Post-IPSOS poll found that Kemp had the lowest approval rating (39%) of any governor in the nation.
State officials have blamed the errors on an outside vendor, and Kemp’s office and the Department of Public Health have both apologized. Kemp’s office has also promised the state would never make this sort of mistake again, but the damage may already be done. Georgia residents check the data daily to help them decide whether it’s safe to go into stores, reopen their own businesses, send their children to daycare, or in this case, reopen churches to the public.
Presented with inaccurate data, Georgians may have already made decisions they would not have otherwise made and inadvertently spread the virus.
The battle over accurate data—which could be a life or death issue—is likely to continue in states across the country, as are outbreaks among church congregations. In fact, they already are. A California pastor who ignored county orders and held a Mother Day’s livestream service that included singing has been diagnosed with COVID-19. At least three other cases have also been connected to the service, Mendocino County officials announced Monday.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a federal judge on Saturday struck down an order from Gov. Roy Cooper restricting indoor services. On Sunday, several churches across the state opened their doors to congregants, including the Triangle Christian Center in Raleigh, which welcomed about 100 people, according to WTVD.
The Trump administration has avoided issuing guidance on whether to allow or limit public services at churches and other houses of worship, instead leaving those decisions up to state and local governments. In fact, the White House actively pressured the CDC to exclude faith-related guidance from its new 60-page reopening guidance for restaurants, bars, schools, and other public places. Nowhere in the entire document does the word “church” even appear.
All 50 states may be at least partially “open,” but the emerging outbreaks in churches underscore an uncomfortable truth about what the future holds, as highlighted by former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden on Sunday.
“Tragically, this is a really bad virus, and we are just at the beginning. We’re in different places in different parts of the country. In New York City, where I am today and where I live, we are at the end of the beginning,” Dr. Frieden told Fox News Sunday. “In some other places of the country, it hasn’t yet hit in full force.”