In the latest clash between houses of worship and local governments asking people to stay home to stop the spread of coronavirus, a South Jersey church opened its doors to parishioners in defiance of the governor.
On Sunday, Solid Rock Baptist Church, in Berlin, Camden County, began letting people through its doors, albeit requiring them to wear masks and have their temperature checked before entering.
The move comes in defiance of Gov. Phil Murphy’s closure orders and in the wake of President Donald Trump actively encouraging houses of worship to reopen, despite previously saying lockdown restrictions should be handled by governors.
Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Murphy said, “I would hope we’d get to (reopening) houses of worship sooner than later, but we want to make sure we do it right, responsibly, and that we don’t kill anybody by doing it too fast.”
Solid Rock Baptist Church’s pastor, Charles Clark Jr., called the governor a “tyrant” and threatened to file a lawsuit in combination with another Camden County church. For Sunday’s services, the church spaced pews about six feet apart and was not passing out collection baskets.
“We know the precautions that have to be taken. Our elderly, in particular, need to be watched out for, cared for – we’re especially careful with them – and we know that we need to take measures to protect our church family and protect our community from the coronavirus,” Clark said.
Police officers were outside the church Sunday but were not planning to make any arrests, instead setting up cameras as they observed proceedings.
The Centers for Disease Control and prevention has identified houses of worship as key transmission routes for the novel coronavirus.
A CDC case study released Friday highlighted a case in which an Arkansas pastor and his wife infected 35 people at a service. However, strict social distancing measures were not in place at the time, and the CDC has now issued guidance on how houses of worship can keep people safe.
“Faith-based organizations should work with local health officials to determine how to implement the U.S. Government guidelines for modifying activities during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and their communities,” the CDC said in its Arkansas case study.
Not all church leaders, however, are yet comfortable with once again beginning in-person services.
In Philadelphia, Rev. Alyn Waller, of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church – who himself showed no symptoms after becoming infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus – asked other churches to consider the health of children and seniors before reopening.
As of Sunday, 1.6 million people in the U.S. had contracted the virus and nearly 100,000 had died, according to figures by Johns Hopkins University. In New Jersey, which has been battered by the outbreak, more than 11,000 people had died of the virus as of Saturday and more than 153,000 had been infected.
State and local governments in recent weeks have begun lifting strict stay-at-home restrictions, raising fears of another uptick of infections. In Missouri, a hair stylist working while sick with COVID-19 exposed coworkers and nearly 90 customers to the disease. One coworker potentially exposed dozens more after becoming ill.