For the first time in two months, there was clapping, singing and fellowship inside the Stithton Baptist Church in Radcliff, Kentucky, as members of the congregation returned to the sanctuary for Sunday morning services. There also were masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing.
On a weekend when US President Donald Trump declared houses of worship essential and asked governors to reopen them, some congregants around the country headed for their places of worship with numerous precautions in place.
Those services in the US followed a frantic two days in which at least one governor reached an agreement with religious leaders in Minnesota to ease restrictions on in-person services while a federal appeals court upheld another’s continuing shutdown of such services.
For Stithton Baptist, the reopening was not about restrictions, Trump’s declaration or the release of guidelines by the US Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention (CDC) for reopening faith organizations.
On May 8, a federal court halted Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s temporary ban on mass gatherings from applying to in-person religious services, clearing the way for Sunday church services, with guidelines.
Pastor Denver Copeland said that his congregation has been meeting in the church parking lot for drive-in services since March 29 and has not rushed back, even though his sanctuary space meets the 33 percent occupancy requirement.
“We just weren’t ready,” the pastor said.
They made their plans to hold in-person services three weeks ago.
Copeland said that Friday’s US CDC release of religious guidelines “made it all the more legit” for the timing of their return to in-church services.
In a sanctuary that can legally accommodate 1,400, the normal Sunday attendance is 200. On Sunday, every other pew was marked off to enforce social distancing and individual bags of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer were available at all three entrances, which were left open prior to and after the service.
Tension over when and how to reopen houses of worship has varied depending on the state, as different areas set their own pace for easing pandemic stay-at-home orders. While many announced that they would resume in-person services this week, others joined Stithton on Sunday in returning to their places of worship.
Faith Baptist Church in Palmhurst, Texas, west of McAllen, held an hour-long service. The church announced its plans on its Web site on Tuesday last week, along with an extensive list of precautions, including urging members aged 65 or older and those with immune system vulnerabilities to consider viewing the service online.
“We’re doing our best to follow what the government has asked us to do, but we also want to be able to try and have services so this is probably how it’s going to be looking for at least a few weeks,” assistant pastor Tad Wychopen II told attendees.
During his message, senior pastor R. David Harris also emphasized the cautious approach.
“Church gathering is important, but at this point there’s still health issues and we still don’t know where things are going,” he said.
Many in the Muslim community took a different path in celebrating Eid al-Fitr — the feast of breaking the fast — that marks the end of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.
Just as they did during Ramadan, many resorted to at-home worship and relied on technology for online gatherings, sermons and, now, Eid al-Fitr entertainment.
Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, resident academic at the East Plano Islamic Center in Texas, delivered a sermon broadcast online from a mosque closed to the public.
Outside, his mosque organized a drive-through Eid al-Fitr celebration, one of many at mosques across the US, for kids in cars to pick up goody bags while maintaining social distancing.
Over the weekend at least one standoff between a governor eased while another intensified.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced he scrapped his 10-person limit on group gatherings and allowing churches to open at 25 percent occupancy if safety guidelines are met.
The battle over in-person services continued in California. A split Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld California Governor Gavin Newsom’s ban on in-person services.
Many in California had already announced they would violate the state order and hold in-person services on Pentecost on Sunday.
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