Keep churches closed for now

Banners hang over windows outside the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church on Sunday in Chicago. Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 18:

CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — A reader emailed us a question that people have been asking: Under Illinois’s shutdown order, why is it OK to go to the grocery store or Walmart but it’s not OK to go to church?

“Both are big buildings that have a lot of people in them. What’s the science behind this? Maybe if there was more reporting on the ‘why,’ folks would understand and perhaps follow the guidelines,” the reader wrote.

We’ll give it a shot: While we don’t have all the answers, we support Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to hold off on church services for now. One reason? Lessons learned from the Mount Vernon, Wash., choir outbreak earlier this year where 53 choir members became sick and two died. One symptomatic person attended a rehearsal and likely sickened the rest.

A published Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the outbreak determined that the act of singing — vocal cords that push droplets into the air — caused the coronavirus to spread more than it would in other spaces, such as a grocery store. Unless there’s an outbreak of singing at your local supermarket. Which we doubt.

Some religious services also involve handshaking, breaking of bread, shared holy water, Bible school and preaching, all within the confines of a church — not all buildings are spacious — for an hour or longer. Even under social distancing rules and facial coverings, the closeness and traditions of a religious service can make it riskier than a trip to the store.

That’s the situation today. It doesn’t mean churches should remain closed in two weeks or two months. Cases of infection statewide and diligence on social distancing may well justify a slow reopening of religious services sooner. Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Chicago Archdiocese, for example, recently unveiled a phased approach to restarting Mass. The first step would allow for small gatherings for baptisms, funerals and weddings.

Rather than openly defy stay-home orders, Cupich worked with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office and health officials to establish guidelines. He also rightly emphasized to parishioners that restrictions due to public health should not be equated with restrictions on religious liberty.

Churches that hold services of any type in defiance of state and city orders could face fines, Mayor Lightfoot said Monday. But anything beyond that, which would divert city and police resources to punish violators, would be an overreach of government. Civil disobedience should not be met with an aggressive police response.

It’s understandable that faith-based citizens facing this pandemic feel particularly frustrated and vulnerable, separated from the very moorings that keep them steady and hopeful. But there are specific health reasons behind the limitations. They won’t last forever.

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