COVID restrictions on religious services necessary, say Delaware pastors

Pastor Theodore Henderson of Dover Christian Church applauded the upcoming restrictions for safety’s sake and said, “Many of our members have military backgrounds, including myself. So we’re used to following orders.” (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Dr. Karyl Rattay offered a straightforward assessment during last week’s public update on the current status of COVID-19 in Delaware.

“We have seen, unfortunately, a number of outbreaks related to religious services, some with very high numbers of infected people,” the Delaware Division of Public Health director said.

And now, allowable in-person church attendance is about to drop due to a health-related mandate from Gov. John Carney.

Through additional statewide restrictions announced Tuesday, indoor religious services will soon be limited to 30% of a house of worship’s stated fire capacity, with a maximum of 50 people. The restrictions also cover indoor events such as weddings, funerals, political gatherings and more, according to the announcement.

The governor’s order becomes effective at 8 a.m. Monday.

On Tuesday, Pastor Theodore Henderson of Dover Christian Church applauded the upcoming restrictions for safety’s sake and said, “Many of our members have military backgrounds, including myself. So we’re used to following orders.”

Pastor Henderson said last week that his church had already been taking stringent health and safety precautions and that he believed the more than 20-member churches in the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Dover and Vicinity had taken the same approach. Pastor Henderson is president of the organization he said includes mostly African-American congregations.

The churches have canceled banquets and other events, limited in-person attendance, donned face coverings and washed hands consistently, Pastor Henderson said.

“We don’t know the cure but do know the remedy, which is to wear a mask and socially isolate,” said Pastor Henderson.

The pastor said a friend of his attended a large-scale gathering at a non-IMADV church recently, then developed COVID-19 and died.

“Personally, I think it’s irresponsible not to follow the guidelines that have been put out there,” Pastor Henderson said, speaking generally and not about any specific church.

“Ministers who have their members who will listen to and follow them should exercise caution in their leadership role.”

During the ongoing pandemic, Pastor Henderson said he’s tailored sermons to encourage members to stay strong spiritually and maintain faith in such challenging times.

With the governor’s announcement, St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church has opted to pause its two in-person weekly services after this week.

The house of worship in Dover had maxed out at 20 attendees Friday and 40 Sunday and has now opted to go to online services on both of those days, the Rev. V. Anne Strickert said Wednesday. Some of the event will be presented live, with other parts, such as songs and readings, recorded, she said.

Church leadership had already been concerned that family gatherings during the upcoming holiday season could lead to potential coronavirus outbreaks. Now, there will be no in-person services until at least Jan. 1, she said.

“It just made sense at this point to go in this direction at this time of the year,” she said.

First Presbyterian Church in Smyrna has capacity for 300 attendees, but the Rev. Dr. John Riley said the weekly number of in-person worshipers averages around 40. His church includes 126 members overall and 30 nonmembers who sit in at times.

“I don’t think we’ll ever reach a threshold that will upset the governor,” the Rev. Dr. Riley said Wednesday.

Livestream services continue as “we’re aware that people still have spiritual needs.”

A 50-person limit inside will challenge Milford Church of God, which has regularly seated anywhere from 100 to 120 attendees, Pastor Andy Stevens said. He said a plan to hold two service times to adhere to restrictions is under discussion, while admitting that it’s tough to turn away people who come to the church for spiritual guidance and fellowship.

The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington was in the process of reviewing the impact of Gov. Carney’s updated restrictions on its parishioners, spokesman Robert Krebs said Wednesday.

Associate Pastor John Moore of Dover Christian Church said last week that in-person worshipers number around 20 on Sundays, down from 100 prior to coronavirus.

“Congregations gather for all the singing and preaching and talking, and all of a sudden, the church becomes an incubator,” he said.

“People don’t need to get so carried away with their in-person religion that they fail to acknowledge scientific evidence showing that the virus is quite real and quite capable of spreading through any community.”

Associate Pastor Moore is vice president of the Delaware Council of Faith-Based Partnerships (established by then-Gov. Jack Markell in 2012), which partners with state entities to address issues in the faith-based community.

“The big challenge is that fellowship does not equal social distancing,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword.

“People of faith believe God can be the answer to something God expects you to have common sense about.”

A recent analysis of DPH investigation data showed that religious services-related coronavirus cases rose from 60 in August to 133 in October.

According to DPH spokeswoman Jen Brestel last week, the cases noted were aggregate and not specifically identified for a location.

For weeks, the number of religious service-related coronavirus cases has risen above other location categories it once trailed, the DPH said.

From Oct. 11 to Nov. 7, religious services trailed only restaurants in gathering areas connected to COVID-19 cases, according to DPH numbers. They had been regularly eclipsed by events such as house parties and beach trips from Aug. 30 to Oct. 10, statistics showed.

The rise in connected cases were hardly confined to religious services connections. The DPH said last week that other data showed:

• The percentage of cases reporting attendance at events/gatherings increased from 18% in August to 28% in October. This includes indoor and outdoor gatherings such as house parties, dinner parties, religious services, weddings, sporting events and other large gatherings.

• The average number of people at large events had gone up from 28 in August to 42 in October.

• The number of house parties attended by those with positive cases went up from 56 in August to 86 in October. (House parties are one of the top three gatherings reported in contact tracing over the past week.)

• The number of professional/sporting events attended more than doubled from nine in August to 22 in October.

• “Other large gatherings” attended by those with positive cases doubled from 44 in August to 88 in October.

Data were accumulated through interviews with people who were asked what type of events or venues they visited or participated in 14 days before the onset of their illness, Ms. Brestel said.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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