Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.
The virus has infiltrated Sunday sermons, meetings of ministers and Christian youth camps in Colorado and Missouri. It has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.
Pastors and their families have tested positive, as have church ushers, front-door greeters and hundreds of churchgoers. In Texas, about 50 people contracted the virus after a pastor told congregants they could once again hug one another. In Florida, a teenage girl died last month after attending a youth party at her church.
More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic, with many of them erupting over the last month as Americans resumed their pre-pandemic activities, according to a New York Times database.
“There’s a very fine line between protecting the health and safety of people, and protecting the right to worship,” said George Murdock, a county commissioner in northeastern Oregon, where the largest outbreak in the state has been traced to a Pentecostal church in a neighboring county. “It’s one we’ve been walking very nervously all along.”
While thousands of churches, synagogues and mosques across the country have been meeting virtually or outside on lawns and in parking lots to protect their members from the virus, the right to hold services within houses of worship became a political battleground as the country crawled out of lockdown this spring. In May, the president declared places of worship part of an “essential service” and threatened, though it was uncertain he had the power to do so, to override any governor’s orders keeping them closed.
But now, as the virus rages through Texas, Arizona and other evangelical bastions of the South and West, some churches that fought to reopen are being forced to close again and grapple with whether it is even possible to worship together safely.