For Christians and Jews, this week marks Easter and Passover. In the first of a three-part look at Holy Week and the impact of coronavirus, WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody looks at how worship is being changed by the pandemic -- from the pews to local and state governments.
“I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church; I’m certainly not going to do that,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, who drew some criticism when he exempted religious services from his “Safer at Home” declaration he announced last week, which runs through April 30 and outlines essential services and activities.
“At the same time, we got with the churches and synagogues very early and said, ‘in times like this what you guys are doing I think is even more important,’” said the governor. “But, we ask that you do it in a way that is going to be conducive to this overall mission.”
And almost to a church, DeSantis said they agreed with his approach.
“Some have gone virtual; some have had people but they’ve been spread out far enough,” said DeSantis. “I mean, you [media] are spread out here in this press conference; there’s no reason you couldn’t do a church service with people 10 ft. apart. I think people are going to want to have access to religious services, where it’s online, whether it’s in a more socially-distant type of service.”
But in his roundtable discussion on the virus Monday, the governor appeared to urge churches and their parishioners to follow the guidelines set forth by the CDC and Department of Homeland Security.
“We want people during this time to be spiritually together but to remain socially distant,” DeSantis said. “Please keep God close; but please keep COVID-19 away. We appreciate all the cooperation that we’ve had through people throughout the state of Florida.”
“I know the big question right now certainly is related to church services,” said Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson. “[Sunday] was Palm Sunday and it’s the start of Holy Week. This applies certainly to Christians, but not only Christians – all of our houses of worship.”
Robinson, who’s under quarantine awaiting a second test result for coronavirus -- the first was negative -- held his first virtual news conference at his home on Monday. He’s asking local clergy for their help.
“While they are not prevented by the state of Florida from meeting, we’ve asked in the city of Pensacola for all of our houses of worship to find a way to provide their services in some kind of alternative, virtual setting,” said the mayor.
And with tongue pressed firmly in cheek, Robinson said attending services via the Web does have some advantages.
“We usually have a problem being on time, but we were on time,” said Robinson. “And during the sermon I was able to eat cheese grits; so there are some benefits. This is one of the most important times during the year for religious celebration. But we ask that you please this week find a way to work with your house of worship, to make sure you can do that from your home. It is critical.”
To illustrate the need for social distancing and online church services, the mayor pointed to Albany, in southwest Georgia, which Robinson says now leads the world in per-capita COVID-19 cases.
“They had a funeral service, where one individual went contaminated and managed to contaminate all the people in the funeral service [and] then took it out and contaminated other people,” said the mayor. “That’s why we’re not doing these mass gatherings. And we need to find a way to make sure we’re not doing that in all of our houses of worship because this is how this can spread.”
And the mayor says with modern-day technology, there’s really no excuse for large gatherings of any kind – religious or otherwise.
“There are ways – if we can do a press conference remotely, we can find a way to go to church and do our worship online as well during this pandemic,” Robinson said.
Muslims across the world may also feel the effects of COVID-19 during their most important observance. Ramadan begins at sundown on Friday, April 24 and will last 30 days, before ending at sundown on Saturday, May 23.