No ban on services, but Kemp urges staying home for Easter amid COVID

Saint Mark United Methodist Church on Peachtree Street has veiled one front door in observance of Good Friday on April 10, 2020. The veil also covers one of the posted messages that the church is closed until further notice. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Saint Mark United Methodist Church on Peachtree Street has veiled one front door in observance of Good Friday on April 10, 2020. The veil also covers one of the posted messages that the church is closed until further notice. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Gov. Brian Kemp pleaded Friday with Georgia churches to suspend in-person services, but stopped short of using emergency powers to bar congregational observances of Easter, Christianity’s holiest celebration and a time when pews normally are packed.

Two days earlier, Kemp had suggested he might take stronger action to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus through religious gatherings. At least two of Georgia’s most severe outbreaks apparently originated in such services.

But on Friday, Kemp deferred to the judgment of the state’s pastors, even as he urged Georgians to worship only online or by telephone.

“To all Georgians celebrating Easter this weekend, I am pleading with you not to attend any services in person,” Kemp said in a statement released by his office. “If you attend worship services in person, you risk exposure to coronavirus — potentially endangering your life, the lives of your neighbors and your loved ones.”

The governor’s decision not to interfere with religious services underscored Georgia’s complicated response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kemp lagged behind most other governors in ordering residents to stay home during the outbreak. When he did issue a shelter-at-home mandate, now in force through April 30, he allowed beaches, parks, golf courses, many businesses — and, implicitly, churches — to remain open if they practiced social distancing.

Public health experts have questioned whether exceptions to the lockdown could undermine its effectiveness.

In fact, as President Donald Trump said Friday that “we are near the peak” of the virus’ impact on the nation, Georgia was still confirming additional coronavirus diagnoses and deaths.

The 265th Infectious Control GA Army National Guard enters the Canterbury Court, a senior living facility in Buckhead, to disinfect the building on Friday, April 10, 2020. (STEVE SCHAEFER / Special to the AJC)
The 265th Infectious Control GA Army National Guard enters the Canterbury Court, a senior living facility in Buckhead, to disinfect the building on Friday, April 10, 2020. (STEVE SCHAEFER / Special to the AJC)

Almost 1,000 new cases were confirmed Friday by the state Department of Public Health. In all, close to 12,000 Georgians have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Deaths attributed to the virus increased Friday to 425, compared to 412 on Thursday.

More than 5,000 new diagnoses and more than 200 deaths have been confirmed just since Sunday.

New cases continue to emerge from places where people live in close quarters, from jails and prisons to nursing homes. Three men being held in immigration detention centers in South Georgia have tested positive for the virus, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed Friday. They are among 50 ICE detainees across the country diagnosed with COVID-19.

The men are being isolated from others in the detention centers, in Lumpkin and Ocilla. Immigration rights activists have called on ICE to free vulnerable detainees during the pandemic.


» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA


Church gatherings, where intimate contact is not unusual, have been identified as the incubators for coronavirus outbreaks in Cartersville and in the Albany area. At least four members of Cartersville’s Church at Liberty Square have died from the virus, which has sickened at least 15 others. A funeral at an Albany church introduced the virus into Dougherty County, where at least 68 people have died, more than in any other Georgia county.

Many states did not exempt such services from activities that were suspended to contain the virus. And Kemp had said Wednesday that he would issue new guidance to churches this week, as three major religions prepared for their most sacred celebrations of the year: Easter for Christians, Passover for Jews, and Ramadan for Muslims.

But Kemp, an Episcopalian who often speaks of his religious faith in official settings, has publicly struggled with imposing a lockdown on church services.

“I have a strong belief that now, more than ever, our people need their faith leaders,” Kemp said during a video conference with Baptist pastors on April 4.

The 265th Infectious Control GA Army National Guard enters the Canterbury Court, a senior living facility in Buckhead, to disinfect the building on Friday, April 10, 2020. (STEVE SCHAEFER / Special to the AJC)
The 265th Infectious Control GA Army National Guard enters the Canterbury Court, a senior living facility in Buckhead, to disinfect the building on Friday, April 10, 2020. (STEVE SCHAEFER / Special to the AJC)

An emergency declaration that Kemp signed last month gave officials the authority to shut down gatherings, including church services, that didn’t follow social distancing guidelines. But Kemp told the pastors they could still hold services if they kept worshippers at least 6 feet apart. He suggested they might not suffer consequences if they didn’t.

“It is not my goal to run around and write tickets to a bunch of pastors,” Kemp said.

Last Sunday, two days after Kemp spoke to the pastors, state troopers issued citations for reckless conduct at just one house of worship, the Church of God the Bibleway in Statesboro. Video of the service showed an awkward scene in which troopers interrupted the pastor, who declined to disburse his congregation. Church leaders say they will congregate again on Easter, setting up a potential clash with police.

The 265th Infectious Control GA Army National Guard enters the Canterbury Court, a senior living facility in Buckhead, to disinfect the building on Friday, April 10, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / Special to the AJC
The 265th Infectious Control GA Army National Guard enters the Canterbury Court, a senior living facility in Buckhead, to disinfect the building on Friday, April 10, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / Special to the AJC

Many denominations, however, have instructed churches to hold services only online. Others have conducted drive-in services, in which churchgoers are told to remain in their cars in the church parking lots. But last week, law enforcement agencies received reports that many people at those services did not follow social distancing guidelines, allowing children to play and greeting one another with hugs and handshakes.

Few if any of the state’s 3,600 Baptist churches will worship in their sanctuaries on Sunday, Mike Griffin, a spokesman for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said Friday.

“Georgia Baptists have been very comfortable with the governor’s orders,” Griffin said. “He has struck a balance between religious liberty and public health and safety.”

Still, it will be an Easter like no other, with members of close-knit church communities celebrating in isolation.

“We’re disappointed we don’t get to come together,” Griffin said. “But we recognize that, Lord willing, this is a very temporary situation.”

Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.