When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in late March deemed churches to be “essential” services and superseded bans on in-person religious gatherings in Harris and other counties, many local congregations opted to stick with online services and follow the advice of public health experts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
A month later, Abbott has cleared the way for churches, synagogues and mosques across the state to resume larger gatherings as part of a plan announced Monday to restart Texas’ economy.
But there is far from a consensus among local religious leaders over whether now is the time to throw open church doors, even with Abbott’s social-distancing recommendations. A group of more than 80 Christian churches across greater Houston has signed a statement saying they would not hold in-person services during May.
“We believe that in-person gatherings for worship that are larger than 50 persons should not take place in April or May. We will not have in-person worship but will continue offering worship online,” said the statement. “In making this decision, we have the unanimous support of the leaders of the Texas Medical Center who strongly recommend these actions for all the faith communities of Greater Houston.”
Since the statement went out on Friday, about 25 more churches have added their signatures, according to Scott Jones, as resident bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
“We can see clearly at this time that resumption of larger group gatherings should not happen in the next six weeks,” the statement reads. “Deciding when to resume in-person worship for larger gatherings should be evaluated as new information about the rate of new cases and the availability of testing is available.”
Not every church leader agrees. Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop for Galveston-Houston, which includes 1.7 million Catholics, announced Wednesday evening that masses would resume this weekend with social distancing.
Second Baptist Church, which counts tens of thousands of Houstonians as members, said it will resume services at its campuses — again with social distancing — on May 9. The church said it may add new services to allow congregants to worship while remaining 6 feet apart.
Abbott opens church doors
Many congregations moved away from in-person gatherings prior to orders by local officials, including one by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo that banned gatherings. Abbott subsequently issued an order that reopened churches and other places of worship with limitations; he said religious services should either be conducted remotely or in-person using social distancing guidelines.
The Republican governor’s latest guidance lifts a limit on the size of gatherings and urges people to wear masks when appropriate.
As for places of worship, he recommends that those most at risk for COVID-19 — such as persons age 65 and older who have underlying health conditions — watch or participate in religious services remotely. Churches are encouraged to set aside an area for members of the at-risk population or dedicate a service for just them to attend.
Inside, attendees should keep at least two empty seats between them. Two or more members of the same household can sit next to one another, as can two people attending services together.
Every other row of seating should also be left empty.
Employees and volunteers working at places of worship should also be trained on appropriate cleaning, disinfection, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, according to the guidelines. An employee or volunteer that has new or worsening signs of COVID-19 should be sent home. Employees and volunteers should also maintain social distancing.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he is leaving it up to residents to decide whether they want to attend religious services this weekend.
“People have to exercise their judgment,” Turner said during a briefing Tuesday on COVID-19. “I’m not going to try to dictate every single thing that people do.”
Wednesday, he struck a more religious tone. “God is everywhere. God is in your living room, God is at your kitchen table, God is in your bedroom. If you pray to him, he will hear your prayer and he will respond. Don’t feel compelled to go to any building.”
Lakewood Church, which can seat up to 16,000 people, says it will continue to stick with online services only for now. The megachurch held an Easter service online that was viewed by nearly 12 million people from over 195 countries.
“Since we are a stadium-sized church, Lakewood will continue to hold services online only for the time being,” said spokesperson Andrea Davis in a statement. “We don’t have a reopen date, but we are consulting with experts on the safest and best plan forward.”
Jones, the Methodist resident bishop who also signed the letter, said churches are going to have to re-think many of their normal traditions amid concerns about the new coronavirus, noting how social distancing is difficult for members accustomed to hugging and shaking hands.
He also said places of worship need to reevaluate the way offerings are collected and how to properly disinfect interiors between services.
“We want to move slowly enough, that when we do it, we do it safely,” Jones said.
The plan announced by the archdiocese permits “phased reopening” of Catholic churches so long as parishioners practice social distancing and take other precautions.
“The past several weeks have been a great trial for our world and for our communities as we cope with the hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” DiNardo said in a statement. “In addition to the great suffering of the sick and dying, many have struggled with isolation, financial hardship and other stresses.”
DiNardo has also asked churches to begin opening for a few hours a day for private prayer.
Representatives of other faiths are reviewing the Abbott order.
“We’re really very much in the beginning stages of all this,” said Taryn Baranowski, spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. “We’re beginning conversations but no one is really in a rush to open anything”
Abbott’s Monday order came just days after the start of Ramadan, a 30-day period in which Muslims fast during the day and meet for communal prayers and meals at night.
Tuesday night, Islamic Society of Greater Houston voted to keep mosques closed.
“We have no plan to open until we hear from the medical experts and healthcare agencies,” society president Sohail Syed said earlier Tuesday. “The order says you do not have to open and… once you open it up, everyone wants to go in and it would be very difficult for us to turn people away.”
Ken Werlein, founding pastor at Faithbridge church, who signed the statement pledging not to reopen in May, said holding off on reopening will allow churches to see the effects of social distancing on flattening the curve of new COVID-19 cases and how close the medical community is to developing a vaccine or a drug.
His church, located in Spring, has two sanctuaries that each seat 1,000 people.
“As much as we would like to come back,” Werlein said, “there’s very little to gain with what we know right now, and there’s a lot to potentially to lose.”