As more and more States implement shelter-in-place mandates, many of us are asking what makes the difference between essential and nonessential services. Most States agree that food, home, medical attention and jobs that benefit everyone’s need for survival. Maybe you’re like me, seeing a correspondence between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the bare necessities available to us during the coronavirus’s spread.
We who brave contagion to run errands see restaurants shuttered, athletic events canceled, and churches closed. Why churches? In the event of plague or pestilence, there are sanitation controls and protocols in place to limit the spread of disease in public places. In most states, church buildings are included alongside schools with regard to their potential as breeding grounds for the contagion and, as I recently learned, in Indiana, the power to administer these codes and protocols is entrusted to individual County Health Commissioners.
Were these buildings closed during the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003? No. Since the epidemic didn’t register much contagion in the United States, the need for closure was less apparent. Even in 2009 when the Swine Flu infected millions and took the lives of twelve thousand, the threat didn’t pose much of a risk for us. Vaccines and other treatments became available in short order and most people were spared the economic downturn while our nation was still bouncing back from the economic crisis of 2008.
Two factors make COVID-19 more deadly than previous epidemics. First, it’s easy to catch and the full extent of how it’s transmitted remains unknown. Can we get sick by touching someone? Most likely. Can we catch the virus by breathing the same air as others around us? We don’t yet know, but we suspect so.
The second factor is how fast its effects take hold. Yes, its incubation period may be up to fourteen days. Witness the time length Senator Ted Cruz self-quarantined after contact with an infected participant at the CPAC conference. Still, when a person gets sick, he or she most often develops a quick high fever, shortness of breath, and frequent dry coughing.
Those symptoms are certainly nothing to play with. COVID-19 can cause someone to develop pneumonia or other severe respiratory illness, which may last for years. It is most prevalent in people having compromised immune systems due to underlying conditions, but we are beginning to see many more younger folks succumbing to the disease.
And that’s where the rubber hit the road for many state departments of health which oversee the occupation and operation of public buildings under their jurisdiction. Following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, they ordered crowds first to be no larger than fifty in these locations, then ten, before ultimately mandating closure. Indiana Code 16-19-3-1-10 reads as follows: “The State Department may order all schools and churches closed and forbid public gatherings when considered necessary to prevent and stop epidemics.”
As States bordering Indiana began enacting shelter-in-place mandates these past couple of weeks, we knew our time was coming. First individual schools were closed by principals, then entire school districts shut down by order of superintendents or boards of education. After that it was other, more public locations such as bars, restaurants, theaters, malls, and even parks. Then, what many of us considered an untimely, abrupt punch to Fort Wayne’s Christian community came at 5:30 PM this past Saturday, March 21 when the Allen County Health Commissioner issued an order suspending church services. The order was ambiguously worded such that it was unclear whether no church was permitted to have any in-person services at all or if in-person services were permitted so long as the total number gathered did not exceed ten people (including the pastors). Most churches understood it to mean that no in-person services were permissible (something that has since been clarified by the Department of Health) and their leadership was left in confused scramblings to announce these changes to their staff and parishioners at the eleventh hour. The next morning, dozens of congregations encouraged their members to worship online, some congregations for the first time.
What follows here is a letter I wrote to the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette’s editor voicing the frustrations of many who had mere hours to prepare for the upcoming shut-down. Even for those congregations who already offered live feeds for online viewing or recorded sermons for later use were shocked at the swift action taken by Allen County’s Health Commissioner.
The cancellation of all church services in Allen County by the Health Commissioner, Dr. Deborah McMahan, caught many churchgoers and members of the clergy off guard. Since the mandate came to most of our attention at about 5:30 on Saturday evening, March 21, many congregations had only a few hours to digest its impact before Sunday morning.
Many church leaders had planned for worship services and activities through Holy Week (April 5-11) so the abrupt stoppage of plans through April 11 left us perplexed at how pastors will care for members of their congregations. How could worship, including the celebration of Holy Communion, take place at all? At this late hour, how would worship leaders acquire soft- or hardware for broadcasting live services? Lay leaders are still figuring out the financial and operational toll this cancellation of church activities will take.
The closure of bars’ and restaurants’ in-person service along with other “nonessential” activities of public life (e.g. clubs, athletic competitions, and concerts) have impressed upon us all the need to practice social distancing. “Wash your hands,” has become our mantra promoting mindfulness of health and hygiene.
With that said, people of faith desire to worship together while complying with the standards befitting our community’s health and safety. As such, we acknowledge Dr. McMahan’s authority under Indiana Code 16-19-3-10 to mandate the closure of schools and church buildings during a pandemic’s rapid spread, but it behooves Dr. McMahan to gather church leaders for a public hearing (IC 16-19-3-17) so that the Health Commission’s concern and congregational accommodations may be cooperatively addressed some days prior to any action being taken. Such a hearing would serve to bring Church and State, as it were, into a partnership rather than an adversarial relationship. Churches, after all, stand central to congregational life and community. Furthermore, they are beacons of refuge for members of the community at large who benefit from their food pantries, counseling, and community outreach.
For the sake of public welfare, Dr. McMahan should provide an explanation for her broad-sweeping mandate to cancel church services and close their buildings for the next three weeks. I am sure many pastors and lay leaders wish to speak with her so that we may continue religious services and human care while observing the CDC’s recommendations for curbing the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread.
What’s At Stake?
With no threat against the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citizens recognized that no one was keeping our pastors from preaching. No blasphemy laws were being imposed. What mattered was the lack of a hearing for local religious leaders. Little or no communication came from the Allen County Health Commissioner’s office before the last-minute mandate. Of course suspicions were raised. What would happen for those people arriving the next morning without hearing of the closure ahead of time? What would become of the food kitchens and pantries many congregations offer people who are homeless? And what about the congregational life together—worship, planned community outreach, and so forth?
As the late chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer said, “There’s a time to punch and a time to duck.” For now we wait for the coming weeks, prepared to view recorded services of prayer and preaching, Matins, or Vespers led by pastors in empty sanctuaries. May God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—guide our discernment and grant us sound reasoning in these matters while the COVID-19 pandemic lasts.