Solace from doubt and fear is often found in a place of worship. Not being able to gather in a church, synagogue or mosque in person has compounded the challenges of coping with the life-upending changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
So it is understandable that Gov. Tim Walz's Wednesday announcement easing mitigation measures likely generated disappointment among those missing their faith communities. Beginning June 1, Minnesotans will be able to enjoy outdoor dining with social distancing at restaurants and bars. Salons and barbershops can open at 25% occupancy, with safety measures in place including masks.
But the 10-person maximum for gatherings remains in place for other settings, including places of worship. Virtual and drive-in worship services and other workarounds will have to continue for now. While lawsuits in Minnesota and elsewhere are challenging the constitutionality of COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings, a slow approach is sensible given the emerging science on the ease with which the virus appears to spread in church activities or settings.
A timely report issued Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) underscores the need to move with caution. It profiled an outbreak at an Arkansas church. From March 6 to March 11, 92 people attended events at the church, including Sunday services. An investigation confirmed COVID-19 in 35 attendees, and three died.
"Despite canceling in-person church activities and closing the church as soon as it was recognized that several members of the congregation had become ill, widespread transmission within (the) church ... and within the surrounding community occurred," the CDC report said. "An additional 26 cases linked to the church occurred in the community, including one death."
Because of these findings, the reports' authors added church events to the list of settings where high rates of COVID-19 transmission are known to occur. The others are hospitals, long-term care facilities, family gatherings and choir practice.
That last setting on the list involved an outbreak linked to a March 10 choral group gathering in a Mount Vernon, Wash., church. The CDC concluded that singing may have "augmented" COVID's spread. It's thought that singing may increase the number of aerosolized (and infectious) droplets that a person exhales. Given that hymns are an essential part of services, this is an additional red flag about rushing to resume religious gatherings. Another red flag: Congregations often skew older and are thus at higher risk for COVID-19 complications.
In Minnesota, state health officials say they don't have sufficient data to link outbreaks here to church events. But on March 31, the Star Tribune reported that Martin County had become a COVID-19 state hot spot. At that time, nine of the 23 confirmed cases belonged to one church.
A cautious approach to reopening is supported by the Minnesota Council of Churches, whose 25 members represent "the regional governing and administrative bodies of Mainline Protestant, Historic Black, and Orthodox judicatories."
According to the Rev. Jerad Morey, the council's program and communications director, members grasp the complexities inherent in the pandemic. Morey said that the council also appreciates the weekly calls it has had with state health officials and hopes to work with them to find a way to hold outdoor services and resume in other responsible ways as the weather warms.
The council's philosophy is a good one to guide others who are frustrated that traditional services have yet to begin again. "The science is not yet established because we don't know all the science yet,'' Morey said. "We would rather do this safely than rush in and be a contributor to these infections."