Will places of worship go back to in-person services?

Saint Mark United Methodist Church on Peachtree Street has veiled one front door in respect of Good Friday on Friday, April 10, 2020. The veil also covers one of the posted messages that the church is closed until further notice. JENNI GIRTMAN / FOR THE AJC

Saint Mark United Methodist Church on Peachtree Street has veiled one front door in respect of Good Friday on Friday, April 10, 2020. The veil also covers one of the posted messages that the church is closed until further notice. JENNI GIRTMAN / FOR THE AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp’s Monday announcement reopening businesses included confirmation that Georgia’s houses of worship could hold in-person services if safety protocols, including social distancing, are met. But some are reluctant to meet in person this weekend wondering whether they could do it safely with many people still falling ill and dying of the coronavirus.

Kemp has wrestled with banning in-person religious services and has not ordered churches to close during the pandemic. Instead, he has recommended houses of worship hold services in alternate ways.

“I urge faith leaders to continue to help us in this effort and keep their congregations safe by heeding the advice of public health officials. Of course, online, call-in, or drive-in services remain good options for religious institutions,” he said Monday.

Many faith institutions have switched to livestreaming services, others are holding services in parking lots — drive-in movie style — with members listening through radios from their cars. Still, a few continued to hold regular services.

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Several outbreaks around the nation have been tied to church-related events and services, ranging from choir rehearsals to funerals.

In early April, state troopers interrupted a service at a Statesboro church after its congregation defied the governor's ban on large public gatherings. Leaders of Redeeming Love Church of God the Bibleway and its parent organization said they plan to continue meeting.

“We haven’t stopped,” said Clayton Cowart, who leads the organization, and said no one from their church has died or gotten sick from the virus. “I’m more disappointed with the people of faith,” he said. “It seems that now we’ve become people of fear.”

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Many still refuse to gather, especially those who are older or have underlying medical conditions, since both raise their risk of death from infection.

“I don’t care what the governor says. I don’t care what the president says,” said Evelyn Benton, 72, who attends Nimno AME Church in Nicholson in Jackson County. “I have sense to stay out of harm’s way. I only go to the grocery store and the pharmacy.”

Mike Griffin, spokesman for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board in Duluth, said the board is developing guidelines for its 3,600 member churches, a process that was already in the works.

“I think churches are going to be extremely cautious about moving towards person-to-person,” he said.

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Those that do will likely hold only brief services with church members spread wide apart, careful not to touch things. Churches that do hold services are advised to deep clean, carefully consider bathroom access, supply masks and check the temperature of all who enter.

What churches decide to do may vary from church to church.

Some were critical of Kemp’s decision.

“We‘re deeply concerned that black, brown and poor people will bear the brunt of this,” said The Rev. Shanan Jones, senior pastor of The Gathering Baptist Church in College Park. His church moved online March 22 will not hold in-person services for the foreseeable future. “I’m going to continue to listen to the epidemiologists. This is totally backwards. We’re going to see a spike again and we’re going to be right back where we were.”

Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, presiding prelate of the 6th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which comprises more than 500 churches in Georgia, banned Sunday gatherings.

“This decision by the governor puts economic interest above the safety and well-being of the citizens of Georgia,” he said. “There is no data which justifies or gives credibility to the governor’s decision.”

Summer Osbon holds up a sign as her father, Pastor Shell Osbon, talks to the crowd during the Drive-in church service at the Life Church Smyrna Assembly of God Sunday, April 5, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Jackson said churches have either held services online or held conference calls with congregants and will continue doing so.

Other religious leaders are reviewing Kemp’s plan.

Dr. Naseer Humayun, who speaks for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Norcross, among Georgia’s largest Islamic groups, said prayer at mosques must be done shoulder-to-shoulder. That clearly violates public health advisories and the governor’s mandate for people in groups to remain 6-feet apart, so there are no plans to open their mosque for services this weekend. His community is awaiting guidance from the national leadership in Maryland. “I’ve not heard anything from the headquarters about opening,” he said.

Bishop Robert C. Wright, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, plans a videoconference with clergy this week before deciding when and how to reopen the diocese’s 117 worship locations. A similar meeting is planned for Catholic leaders of the Atlanta Archdiocese.

Some have found solace in the shift to online services, since more people may be watching. Rev. Victor Morgan, the rector of St. Lukes Church Episcopal Church in Blue Ridge, has been holding drive-in services that have been broadcast online, and people have been watching from as far as England.

People are anxious for a return to normal services, he said, but many in his church are retirees or have medical issues. He said he is not ready to decide when he will reopen and is focused instead on preparing for his Sunday service.

“The people can still watch at home on the computer screen,” he said.