Church and Coronavirus Is a Dangerous Combination

Data shows religious services are risky for Covid-19 spread. Yet places of worship are opening and the CDC is removing warnings.

Disinfectors in L’Aquila, Italy, on May 20, 2020, during a sanitizing of a church. Credit: NurPhoto / Getty Images

The debate around how to handle places of worship in the pandemic is becoming fraught. President Donald Trump recently said that churches are essential and that governors nationwide should allow them to reopen. The Supreme Court is set to decide on a religious freedom claim from a church in California. Churches, synagogues, and mosques in more than half of U.S. states are already allowed to open, though they remain under physical distancing rules.

Most recently, the White House and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) removed warnings for reopening houses of worship on the CDC website that said singing in choirs can spread the virus, the Washington Post reported on Thursday evening.

The Post reports that the CDC previously had recommendations for religious groups that said they should “consider suspending or at least decreasing use of choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services or other programming, if appropriate within the faith tradition.” This was due to the fact that singing has been shown to spread Covid-19.

These recommendations were replaced by updated guidance that the Post says “no longer includes any reference to choirs or congregant singing and the risk for spreading virus. The altered guidance also deleted a reference to ‘shared cups’ among items, including hymnals and worship rugs, that should not be shared. The updated guidelines also added language that said the guidance ‘is not intended to infringe on rights protected by the First Amendment.’” (Read the full story here.)

The problem is that religious services and choirs have been cited as clusters of spread of the coronavirus, including in studies published by the CDC. A study published by the CDC on May 22 details how easily the coronavirus can spread in a church setting. The researchers looked at a cluster of cases from a rural Arkansas church. Among 92 people who attended the church, 35 people developed confirmed Covid-19 infections and three people died. An additional 26 cases linked to the church occurred in the surrounding community, and one person died.

Another study published by the CDC on May 15 outlines that following a two-and-a-half-hour-long choir practice in Washington with 61 people, 32 people were confirmed to have Covid-19 and 20 other cases were likely. Three of the people were hospitalized and two people died. “Transmission was likely facilitated by close proximity (within six feet) during practice and augmented by the act of singing,” the researchers concluded.

And yet another study published by the CDC in April that looked at a cluster of cases in Chicago concluded that it’s critical people avoid large gatherings. “These data illustrate the importance of social distancing for preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission, even within families,” the authors wrote. “In this cluster, extended family gatherings (a birthday party, funeral, and church attendance)… might have facilitated transmission of SARS-CoV-2 beyond household contacts into the broader community.”

If faith-based organizations are reopening, the CDC has recommended that they work with local health officials for how to best implement the government guidelines to prevent Covid-19 transmission. The fact that those guidelines are continuing to change will surely make this job more difficult.

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that

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