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Churches amid the pandemic: Some outbreaks, many challenges

NEW YORK (AP) – 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, and continuing to this day, some worship services and other religious activities have been 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-and-desist 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.
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 linked 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 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 on gatherings.
Union County, with a population of 25,000 people, had recorded fewer than 25 cases during the pandemic prior to the church outbreak. Within two 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 different 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 affiliated with the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee, which is 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 is growing, and that several church leaders were among those seriously ill….

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