Many Minnesota religious leaders remain wary of reopening their doors to congregants amid the coronavirus outbreak, despite a new order from Gov. Tim Walz that allows services to resume under special pandemic precautions.
Walz responded to pressure from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and other religious groups Saturday in allowing places of worship to reopen at 25% of normal seating capacity, effective just before midnight Tuesday. Archbishop Bernard Hebda lauded the move as a "breakthrough" that will allow Catholic services to resume Wednesday.
Other religious leaders, and the mayors of both St. Paul and Minneapolis, say the risks in resuming religious services are still great, especially to vulnerable populations.
"It is irresponsible to be inviting people right now to worship within the walls of our congregation's building," the Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis, wrote in an e-mail.
The 42 rabbis of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association were unanimous in saying they will not yet gather or open their religious facilities for regular activity, because it's safer to keep worshiping at home since "the peak of COVID-19 has yet to come."
In St. Paul, a pastor with Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, the largest Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in the city, said leaders have been clear that they intend to hold worship online only for the foreseeable future.
"We know that this virus disproportionately impacts those who are older and people with underlying health conditions, and many of our congregants fall into those categories," Pastor Javen Swanson of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church said in an e-mail, noting that it would greatly diminish worship to eliminate singing and holy communion.
The Muslim American Society of Minnesota said it's keeping its affiliated masjids and places of worship closed "until infection rates are reliably reported to decline in Minnesota."
The Walz administration on Saturday published 14 pages of guidance on reopening places of worship for regular services, weddings and funerals.
The decision came amid escalating tensions, with President Donald Trump calling on governors to open places of worship immediately. The Archdiocese had said it planned to reopen Tuesday, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod had also said some of its churches would defy a previous order that limited services to 10 people.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said their discussions with other religious leaders had found a "strong, unified commitment" to continuing to hold services remotely.
"Any large in-person gathering amid this pandemic puts people at risk," the two mayors said in a joint statement.
Minnesota announced 730 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Sunday and 17 additional deaths from the viral respiratory illness.
The state has now confirmed 20,573 cases of COVID-19 through testing since early March. The number of cases was increasing steadily through May 15, the last date when confirmed, finalized data were available.
Meanwhile, 869 people have died after getting COVID-19 in Minnesota. Thirteen of the newly reported deaths were residents of long-term care, assisted living, or group behavioral-health facilities, and all were between the ages of 50 and 99, according to the Minnesota Health Department's daily update Sunday.
At least three-quarters of people who have died from COVID-19 had underlying health conditions, including chronic lung disease, uncontrolled asthma, serious heart conditions, immunocompromised conditions, diabetes, liver and chronic kidney disease, and severe obesity. Advanced age and living in group settings increases the risk of serious disease.
As of Sunday there were 207 people in intensive-care hospital beds, where the most critical cases are treated, and another 346 people in regular hospital beds. All told, about 14,100 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 have recovered from their illness and no longer need to remain in isolation.
As many as 5% of cases require critical care in a hospital, but most cases of COVID-19 cause mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
Such statistics are critical factors as secular and religious leaders debate the best way to reopen public life.
Some religious officials have watched with chagrin as Walz has allowed private businesses to reopen while places of worship were forced to stay closed.
A not-for-profit law firm, the Upper Midwest Law Center, which files litigation to block what it sees as government overreach, said in a statement Saturday that Walz's decision to reopen churches with 25% occupancy was a "positive development" but still left churches on unequal footing.
The group said it has a hearing Tuesday for a temporary restraining order in a lawsuit from two churches that are suing to overturn Walz's church-closure order. The church officials are considering their options.
"This new guidance still falls short by burdening churches with more restrictions than many other secular organizations and activities," the Law Center said in its statement Saturday. "Why can retail stores and malls operate at 50% capacity, while churches are restricted to 25% capacity?"
Churches may present special kinds of risks.
Early in the U.S. experience with COVID-19, a church in rural Arkansas had at least 35 positive cases, including the pastor and his wife, and three deaths among 92 people who attended services and Bible study between March 6-11, according to a report published May 19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 26 people in the community were affected.
The Los Angeles Times reported that in March, 45 of 60 members of the Skagit Valley Chorale who participated in a rehearsal at a Presbyterian church in Washington state were diagnosed with COVID-19 three weeks later. At least two died.
The virus that causes COVID-19 can travel about 6 feet through the air on droplets of breath. It's not clear whether speaking or singing forcefully could increase how far viral droplets travel.
Faith itself may make places of worship different from stores or restaurants, said Rabbi Aaron Weininger, who co-chairs the Minnesota Rabbinical Association.
"People may experience the opening of houses of worship differently than stores or restaurants," he said. "They may sense, with doors open, God is calling on them to show up. That unique sense of religious obligation may reach especially vulnerable populations."
Joe Carlson • 612-673-4779