National tension and tempers are incredibly high over the rising numbers of COVID cases in America. We’re all on the edge after months of lockdowns, shutdowns, quarantines, economic instability, school closures, and the surreal nature of social distancing.
We’re mad about recommendations that keep changing and the lack of control and transparency in how this pandemic has been handled. Churches shut down during the initial phases of the COVID panic. Many were in localities where officials imposed harsh rules on faith communities in an effort to halt worship.
Wednesday, the United States topped 3 million cases of coronavirus. Also on Wednesday came an article from The New York Times titled “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.” (UPDATE: NYT later changed the headline, but you can see the original here.)
As you’d expect from the not-so-subtle title, the NYT blames rising numbers on churches, ministers, sermons, and religious youth camps, specifically noting, “It has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.”
Overt shaming like this might make you wonder how many of these millions of cases trace back to the faithful cautiously gathering for comfort and consolation during this pandemic. Surely the caseload must be astronomical to warrant targeting in this matter.
Except the article paints a different picture in the actual numbers: “More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic.” I’m no epidemiologist, but I don’t need to be, because simple math shows that 650 out of 3,000,000 cases across our nation means 0.0216 percent of them trace back to churches. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent should not — and cannot — be called a major source of this infection.
NYT: Churches are a major source of COVID outbreak
Oh shit, how bad it is?
NYT: Over 650 cases
In… in New York?
NYT: No, in the country.
But… That's fewer than half the cases Florida alone has linked directly to travel from New York to FLhttps://t.co/C5kFKy0j0o
— PoliMath (@politicalmath) July 8, 2020
The Times presents the actions of churches and churchgoers in as negative a light as possible, writing, “as the virus rages through Texas, Arizona and other evangelical bastions of the South and West, some churches that fought to reopen are being forced to close again and grapple with whether it is even possible to worship together safely.”
It’s disingenuous to pin the caseloads of these states on churches, ignoring that contact tracing connects dozens of cases in Texas to churches, for example, out of their 230,000 and counting total cases. It is divisive. It’s fake news. A tiny fraction of a percent can’t responsibly or seriously be described as a “major source” of transmission. And it’s a total distraction from what drives the predominance of coronavirus infections.
When infections and transmissions are overstated like this, especially in a time of crisis, it makes it harder for the public to know who they should listen to or trust for accurate information. In turn, this makes people more likely to make decisions based on feelings or “knowledge” shared by friends who may not have their facts straight.
Church Gatherings and Protests Are Not Treated Alike
It isn’t the faithful, coming together to worship that has led to so many infections at the national level. I have talked to many clergy and parishes, and none are treating this like a ruse or a joke. They take very seriously the health and wellbeing of their congregations, both spiritually and physically. We keep hearing that we’re all in this together, but it doesn’t feel this way when everyday Americans are targeted for making their own decisions about what is essential.
Congregations have worked hard to keep up with the changing information that health officials have shared about coronavirus. They’ve learned rapidly how to do services online, how to work with local health guidance on the size of gatherings, and how to institute effective cleaning and disinfectant measures.
Yet these additional actions often aren’t enough to placate health departments, and they’re apparently not enough for the NYT either: “But as new cases and clusters have emerged in recent weeks from Florida to Kansas to Hawaii, public health experts have emphasized that, even with social distancing, the virus can easily spread through the air when hymns are sung and sermons preached inside closed spaces.”
Of course, there’s no word on when other gatherings where people are excited or passionate — like, say, mass protests — will be in the targeting-sights of officials. Either being together, inside or outside, loudly championing a cause or singing a hymn is a recipe for COVID spread, or it’s not.
In a crisis, religious people come together to receive God’s peace and to help to bear each other’s burdens. The mixed messages and targeted anger at some groups while supporting the rights of other groups ignores that barring people from their faith community for months on end has real and lasting repercussions for Americans.
Churches Are Working Valiantly to Reduce Risk
Ultimately, this isn’t really about the right to hold services or if gathering in groups is risky. There is risk. Churches are working to address that, but so much of the writing and guidance on this is by people who don’t seem to have any idea on what faith communities are actually doing during the age of COVID.
Popular infographics cite churches as being in the highest risk category, in part because of the prevalence of surfaces that are frequently touched. Yet any church — especially one where families are distancing — that cleans between services and pays careful attention to keeping their neighbors safe is not more “high touch” than a grocery store, a restaurant, or a chain retail store. All of those are open without the scrutiny and lecturing that has been aimed at churches.
One of the churches interviewed by the NYT after a regional outbreak voiced exactly this sentiment, “Mr. Satterwhite, the pastor in Oregon, said that scrutiny had fallen unfairly on churches, while businesses with outbreaks did not face the same backlash.” The backlash and media attention serves mostly as a distraction, making churches a convenient place to throw blame in a situation that, for many of us, feels uncontrollable.
If we’re to deal with this pandemic for the foreseeable future, it is inconceivable that people will stay away from church. Death, mortality, fear, instability, and chaos are reasons we need more opportunities to be comforted in church. What Americans don’t need is to be blamed and shamed for seeking eternal aid in a temporal crisis. The church has endured plagues before and will stand for hope and peace no matter how uncertain life around us becomes. Attacking churchgoers right now is both disappointing and short-sighted.
As we look at this crisis now spreading into the fall, with no end in sight, media organizations that have focused on attacking based on politics and religion instead of fighting this pandemic need to feel some moral responsibility for dividing us when we desperately need to work together. This shouldn’t be about ideology. It should be about evidence-based public health policies and restoring public trust in our institutions.