The weeks-long battle between religious leaders who have defied coronavirus lockdown orders and authorities trying to protect the public from spreading the deadly infection came to a head this weekend as members of churches around the country prepared for an unusual Easter Sunday service.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. surpassed 500,000 on Saturday, yet some faith leaders said they planned to go against federal guidelines discouraging public gatherings of more than 10 people, while others in harder-hit areas worked to set up Zoom meetings and experimented with sound-mixing technology to combine separately recorded hymns.
Governors in several states worked to balance the desire for adequate public health measures with the politics of asking citizens not to gather to celebrate the holiday. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp have encouraged worshippers to attend online services. Though Holcomb has ordered Indiana churches to stay closed, Kemp has reportedly left the decision up to individual pastors in his state. In Texas and Florida, governors have exempted religious services from the states’ stay-at-home orders.
Meanwhile, in Louisiana, the Reverend Tony Spell—who was charged last month for repeatedly violating a state ban on large gatherings—said this week that he expects 2,000 people to attend Easter Sunday services at the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge.
“Satan and a virus will not stop us,” Spell told Reuters, as he prepared for the Sunday service. “God will shield us from all harm and sickness.” (He previously told WMTV he did not believe his congregation was at risk of infection because he believed the virus was “politically motivated.”)
Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said in a statement in March that Spell had repeatedly failed in his responsibility to show “strength and resilience” during the crisis, choosing instead “to embarrass us for his own self-promotion.”
“Mr. Spell will have his day in court where he will be held responsible for his reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community,” added Corcoran. “We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law.”
Corcoran did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Saturday about whether authorities plan to monitor or otherwise address Spell’s planned gathering.
But the Baton Rouge-based pastor was not alone—he’s in company with outliers from the notorious Idaho-based activist Ammon Bundy to the evangelical Cross Culture Center in Lodi, California.
In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said that mass gatherings are permitted but anyone who participates will be forced to self-quarantine for 14 days, prompting Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to advise the governor to “take a step back.”
“Taking license plates at church? Quarantining someone for being Christian on Easter Sunday? Someone needs to take a step back here,” Paul tweeted.
Beshear, a Democrat who serves as a deacon in his local church, said that his state was down to “seven churches” considering in-person services for the holiday, as other clergy members around the country planned virtual and drive-in services.
The need to implement social distancing was clarified starkly this week, after a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed the spread of COVID-19 in Chicago through the case of one man with mild symptoms who did not know he was infected. The man attended a meal, a funeral, and a birthday party, where he ultimately transmitted the virus to 16 others, resulting in three deaths. Of particular relevance this weekend: Some of those infections were the result of birthday party attendees, who did not yet have symptoms of the virus, taking part in a 90-minute church service.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a press briefing Saturday that the deaths in his state, which hit 8,627 on Saturday, are “stabilizing” but “at a horrific rate.”
“These are just incredible numbers depicting incredible loss and pain,” said Cuomo, urging people of all faiths to celebrate the week’s holidays at home.
“Whether you do it from home or through a computer screen, it’s the same message,” said Cuomo, noting that “if anything,” the pandemic has made faith and community “more profound.”
Many faith leaders have taken the federal recommendations to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people seriously, especially those in harder-hit areas.
Josephine Robertson, the Vicar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Bellevue, Washington, told The Daily Beast on Saturday that she was “heartbroken” over the pandemic but hopeful that “in the midst of this crisis, those of us in leadership can help lay Christians reclaim their faith and practice in their homes.”
“Christianity began in people’s homes,” said Robertson, who lives in Kirkland, where a deadly outbreak of the virus hit a long-term care facility and then spread throughout King County, killing at least 277 people as of Saturday. “There weren’t fancy buildings, or clergy, or prayer books. Just people, eating together and sharing stories.”
Robertson said her church canceled in-person services at the beginning of March and that she created an at-home Triduum—the three great services of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil— liturgy for observance at home, “no clergy needed.”
“My parishioners are mostly in the highest risk groups, and—given our location—my priority was their safety, so we moved online early,” said Robertson, who noted that her church is small and averages about 14 people on a regular Sunday. She expects about 25-30 participants in Sunday’s Easter Zoom service, which will include a festive morning prayer and a choir of six singers and a volunteer pianist who pre-recorded a hymn separately in their homes, then used a sound-mixer to combine the voices together.
Robertson said she will preach on Sunday about how similar this year’s experience might be to the first Easter: “It will be quiet, simple, and less about pomp and circumstance than about our relationship with God.”
Joseph Peters-Mathews, the Vicar at St. Hilda St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington, said his parishioners have been meeting on different platforms since March 8, including Twitch, Google Hangout, and Zoom. The average Sunday service at his church includes about 55 to 60 congregants, with about 100 people attending on Easter the past few years.
“Last week started on Zoom meetings, while the rest of the congregation has been watching it on a YouTube livestream so that we don’t have 40 people muting and unmuting—and a lag of 60 different voices trying to say ‘and also with you,’” said Peters-Mathews, who said the closure for St. Hilda St. Patrick will last at least through May 10.
“Being in person is of utmost importance as a Christian,” he continued. “Bodies matter. It’s important to touch one another and shake hands and hug and to touch bread and feel wine burning down your throat.”
“But it’s not loving of our neighbors if we’re asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 to vulnerable populations, which is anyone over 65,” said Peters-Mathew, whose husband is a physician at a clinic in a local hospital, with whom he is raising a five-month-old son. “For me, staying home is an act of love.”
“There’s no quick fix,” he added. “We have to find how to grieve and keep celebrating. Death is not the end, and the coronavirus is not the end. Gathering for worship has been cancelled tomorrow, but Easter has not been cancelled.”