President Donald Trump announced Friday that he was designating churches, synagogues and mosques as “essential places that provide essential services” as the nation continues to combat the coronavirus, despite lacking legal power over state governance.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out houses of worship. It’s not right,” Trump said. “So I’m correcting this injustice by calling houses of worship essential.”
“If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” the president threatened.
Trump has previously attempted to wield his authority over state governors, particularly those who have criticized him, but legal scholars say he has little formal power to force governors or businesses to do what he wants.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued revised guidance to places of worship on how to reopen safely as early as this weekend. The agency’s recommendations change depending on how severely the virus has spread in the area.
Trump said he believes religious leaders will be able to keep their congregations safe.
Normal church services, however, can be ideal “superspreader” events, opening the gate for the virus to spread widely within the community. One church in South Korea is believed to have provided a setting for thousands of people to contract the virus over the course of a month. At one point, it accounted for half the country’s total confirmed cases.
Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, clarified the president’s announcement, suggesting that the most at-risk worshippers should continue to stay home. Elderly people, for example, are significantly more likely to experience severe symptoms or to die from complications of COVID-19.
“Certainly people who have significant comorbidities, we want them protected,” Birx said.
For weeks, some churches have been protesting or choosing to ignore stay-at-home orders, with tragic consequences.
An evangelical pastor in Virginia who vowed to continue holding in-person sermons unless he was “in jail or in the hospital” died of COVID-19 in mid-April. In Northern California, someone who had tested positive for the virus attended a Mother’s Day service, potentially exposing some 180 people. And sudden spike in coronavirus cases and the death of a priest forced a newly reopened Catholic church in Texas to quickly change its plans.
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