As cases of coronavirus spiked upward in much of the country in late June and early July, churches and Christian camps found themselves with outbreaks in their communities. Although many congregations resumed in-person worship in May or June after a couple months of virtual alternatives, some are returning to an online format amid the latest coronavirus surge.
As of July 7, more than 11.8 million people globally have been infected with the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, and more than 543,000 have died. In the U.S., the nation with the most infections and deaths, more than 3 million people have tested positive and more than 133,000 have died. The number of new cases over the last two weeks is higher than the previous two weeks in more than 37 states.
Gary Marquez, senior pastor at North Swan Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Tucson, Arizona, died from COVID-19 Sunday (July 5) after battling it for more than a week. The church recently returned to virtual worship as Marquez and a couple members tested positive. Arizona is among the states experiencing the worst surge in recent weeks.
In Universal City, Texas, a church saw more than 50 staff and parishioners test positive in the last two weeks. Ron Arbaugh, pastor of Calvary Chapel, said that when they resumed in-person services they were very careful. Returning to the sanctuary once the governor allowed it, the church required masks and blocked off every other row. Now, however, he has regrets about relaxing social distancing during services in June.
“If I could go back and do something different, I would have kept the prohibition on hugging inside the church,” said Arbaugh, who tested positive along with is wife. “That’s my responsibility. I’m the one who gave permission.”
In Branson, Missouri, an outbreak emerged at Kamp Kanakuk, a Christian camp with several summer camp facilities. As of Monday (July 6), 82 campers and counselors tested positive at its campground with overnight camps for kids aged 13-18. The numbers of infected persons keep rising amid more testing after Kanakuk learned last week that two counselors tested positive. The outbreak occurred even as the camp required masks in large group gatherings, took temperatures daily, increased cleaning of facilities, and required social distancing.
While coronavirus generally hasn’t impacted children as badly as older individuals, some minors have died. That includes a 17-year-old girl who died in June after attending a large church party for children without a mask and where social distancing wasn’t enforced.
More than 100 Christian campgrounds nationwide have canceled their normal summer camps, including Baptist ones like Falls Creek Conference Center in Oklahoma, Moses Merrill Camp & Conference Center in Nebraska, Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina.
In Cleveland, Tennessee, two churches recently saw outbreaks of about 20 people each that led them to return to online worship after a few weeks in their sanctuaries. The pastor of Covenant Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, was among those who tested positive and was hospitalized for several days before being released Monday (July 6). The Facebook livestream of a June 17 in-person service showed that although there was hand sanitizer on the altar, several congregants huddled together, without masks, for prayer while others sang.
Singing remains one of the biggest health concerns about in-person services — and something that sets church services apart from other activities like grocery shopping. Several outbreaks have been tied to church singing or choir practices. At least five members of the choir and orchestra at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, tested positive in June. Before that information was made public, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at that church on June 28 as the choir and orchestra — minus those who tested positive — performed during the service without masks.
Concerns about public singing have led some health officials to pass restrictions on houses of worship. When Germany eased its lockdown restrictions to allow houses of worship to resume in-person services, it included a ban on congregational singing. Last week, California issued a similar restriction on singing or chanting during in-person worship services.
“Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations. In particular, activities such as singing and chanting negate the risk reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing,” California’s Department of Health explained. “Consider practicing these activities through alternative methods (such as internet streaming) that ensure individual congregation members perform these activities separately in their own homes.”
Not all pastors agree. Paul Chappell of Lancaster Baptist Church, an independent megachurch in Lancaster, California, insists he won’t follow the no-singing rule for his 9,000-member congregation.
“The word of God determines how we worship not Sacramento,” he argued.
Earlier outbreaks in June after churches returned to in-person services erupted in Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia, and elsewhere. And even some churches without cases among congregants have returned on virtual worship as COVID-19 cases soar in their communities.