Churches, Which Account for 0.02% of COVID-19 Cases, Are a 'Major Source' of Infection, The New York Times Says

The paper's claim reflects the same arbitrary distinction between religious and secular activities that churches are challenging in court.


"Churches Were Eager to Reopen," says the headline over a story in today's New York Times. "Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases."

The not-so-subtle subtext: Reopening churches was reckless, because they are more likely than other venues to be the sites of superspreading events, regardless of the precautions they take. But the evidence presented by the Times does not support that thesis.

"More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic," the Times says, "with many of them erupting over the last month as Americans resumed their pre-pandemic activities."

The number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in the United States is now 3.1 million, meaning the church-related cases identified by the Times account for 0.02 percent of the total. On the face of it, that does not seem like "a major source of coronavirus cases." And there are something like 385,000 churches in the U.S., so the ones tied to COVID-19 infections represent around 0.01 percent of Christian congregations.

Also note that the Times is talking about church-related infections "since the beginning of the pandemic," so its tally of 650 does not even tell us what has happened since services resumed after lockdowns were lifted, which is ostensibly the story's focus. The article says "many" of those infections happened during the last month, but it never says how many.

More to the point, the Times never says how churches compare to other settings—such as bars, restaurants, offices, factories, house parties, and Memorial Day or Independence Day gatherings—as a source of virus transmission. Even if half of the infections tallied by the Times happened recently, that would still mean other sources account for around 99.8 percent of newly confirmed cases since mid-May, when testing should have begun detecting post-lockdown infections.

ProPublica reports that "more than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been tied to meatpacking plants." As of June 30, the Marshall Project says, "at least 52,649 people in prison had tested positive" for COVID-19. Yet the Times thinks 650 cases make "churches and religious events" a "major source" of infection.

Some church services have become superspreading events, and it is not hard to see why that could happen. "It's an ideal setting for transmission," Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University, tells the Times. "You have a lot of people in a closed space. And they're speaking loudly, they're singing. All those things are exactly what you don't want."

But churches, like other venues, can take precautions that reduce the risk of virus transmission. Outdoor services are less risky than indoor services. Well-ventilated spaces are less risky than poorly ventilated spaces. Services where congregants wear masks and keep a distance from each other are less risky than services where people crowd together without masks. Services where people eschew singing, or keep the volume low, are less risky than services that don't.

Astonishingly, the Times dismisses the value of such precautions, saying the virus "has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers." But in each of the examples it describes in detail, precautions fell notably short.

One outbreak happened at a Texas church where the pastor said it was OK for congregants to hug each other. Another happened at a West Virginia church service where masks were "optional." A third happened at a Christian youth party in Ft. Myers, Florida, that was attended by 100 teenagers who "did not stay at a distance." A fourth happened at a Christian youth camp in Missouri where "camp leaders had asked campers to quarantine themselves for two weeks before arriving and to monitor their temperatures" and "campers were given masks to wear in group settings, although they were not required to wear them when they were in smaller groups of campers they were rooming with."

Physical distancing and mask wearing do not eliminate the risk of virus transmission. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether churches can reopen with an acceptable level of risk by following the same guidelines that apply to other settings where people gather for extended periods of time. By implying that precautions don't really matter, the Times is sending a dangerous message to Americans, many of whom are already weary of social distancing rules and disinclined to wear masks.

Whether you think resuming religious services is worth the risk obviously depends on the value you attach to them. "I am trying to do the right thing," Dan Satterwhite, a pastor at a church in Pendleton, Oregon, tells the Times. "I know a lot of people don't feel this way, but those that do, feel that church is essential. There's more to be considered there than just the physical health; there's also the spiritual health."

I have not been to synagogue in months, but I was not very keen on going even before the pandemic. By contrast, my wife, a rabbi who faces a relatively high risk of dying from COVID-19 because she takes an immunosuppressive medication, has started attending services again. Everyone wears a mask, avoids touching anyone else, maintains a distance of at least six feet, and sings only at the volume of ordinary conversation. The prayer leader faces away from the congregation, and there is no reading from the Torah, since that would entail close proximity. When there is a sermon, the speaker stands at least eight feet from the congregation and avoids speaking loudly.

These precautions are not foolproof, but they are surely better than pre-pandemic practices, and my wife has decided that the benefits she gets from attending services outweigh the risks. That's the sort of decision all of us have to make these days, and there is no rational reason to view religious activities differently in that respect or to treat them as so dangerous that they cannot be tolerated at a time when people are resuming secular activities that pose similar risks of virus transmission. That arbitrary distinction, the one the Times seems to be urging, is at the heart of the frequently successful First Amendment cases challenging pandemic-inspired legal restrictions on religious gatherings.

According to the Times, Satterwhite "said that scrutiny had fallen unfairly on churches, while businesses with outbreaks did not face the same backlash." He adds, "I think that there is an effort on the part of some to use things like this to try to shut churches down." Given reporting like this, that seems like a fair inference.

Update: The Times changed the original headline over the story two days after it appeared. The headline now reads: "Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are Confronting Coronavirus Cases." The current version of the story does not note, let alone explain, the revision.

NEXT: The Reaction to the Harper's Letter on Cancel Culture Proves Why It Was Necessary

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  1. “More to the point, the Times never says how churches compare to other settings— such as bars, restaurants, offices, factories, house parties, and Memorial Day or Independence Day gatherings—as a source of virus transmission.”

    The riots, General, don’t forget the riots.

    1. Haven’t you heard no one at a protest ever got Covid-19.

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  2. One should never use the NYT as a source, let alone write an entire article about them. Like bullies, they thrive on the attention. Treat them more like certain posters on this site, just skip on down the the next thing.

    1. Citing the NYT is like citing a stopped clock. It may be right once in a while, but you never want to depend on it, and any cites to it are dubious right from the start.

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    2. But there is a certain evil pleasure to be gained by reading the horror that is the Times.

    3. This, really. Engaging the NYT on the level is a loser’s game, an exercise in futility. They are not interested in playing fair, so don’t play fair with them. Ignore, mock, quick refutation on the points. Nothing more.

      And above all, don’t give them your money.

  3. The NYT really can’t lose here. They satisfy their ignorant subscribers while flaunting the administration. They are the mouthpiece of the Democratic Party. It is why Reason should never quote them but I realize twitter style flame wars are more the fashion than actual discourse.

    1. They’re not the mouthpiece, but the nag of the Democrats.

      30 years ago I told a political comrade that I read the Times to see what “THEY” were thinking, or wanted us to think.

  4. next: how everyone who went to a grocery store died

    1. Did you hear about the woman who worked at a hair salon? She dyed.

      1. I bet that was one of her highlights.

        1. *applause*

        2. ya funny

        3. Now cut that out

      2. You guys are sick for joking about a serious pandemic. We’re in a very hairy situation.

    2. People don’t sing in huge crowds in grocery stores.

      1. Someone has never seen a Jane’s Addiction video

        1. touche

        2. Or the commercials for…any grocery goods or grocery.

          1. I’m just going on general principles from general recollections of video ads, but I’d bet on those principles that there are running somewhere within recent times one or more ads where people gather in an aisle and sing about toilet paper or canned vegetables or meat extender or whatever.

            Like when I was with another political friend killing some time for traffic to die down and discussion came up about complaints about Joe Camel, and I said (without recalling any particular one) that cartoon characters for adult products were very common in commercials, so we turned on the TV, and sure enough at the first ad break, there were 3 ads for adult products that used cartoon animals; I remember the first was the Cadillac Catera.

            1. Myrbetriq has the animated over-active bladder. Charmin toilet-paper loving bears. SCANA Energy has animated bears. Serta matress sheep. Duracell bunny? The General from General Car Insurance. Snuggles the bear. Pilsbury dough boy. Purple cow from Experian. Muxinex snot monsters. Pom juice animated samuri, dragon, etc. BOOST protein drink with animated veggies, etc. in the fridge.

  5. “More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic,”

    So 650 over 6 months?

    “with many of them erupting over the last month as Americans resumed their pre-pandemic activities.”

    How many? 600? 50? 3?

    1. Australia just locked down 5 million people in Melbourne for 6 weeks “as soaring community transmission of the coronavirus brings more than 100 new cases daily”.
      Beam me up, Scotty

  6. I have not been to synagogue in months


    1. I haven’t been to synagogue in decades. I’m not Jewish, but that’s not a fact that they NYT would find relevant to my claim.

      1. It’s very Pravda-esque.

  7. If you’re not burning down a city block in Minneapolis, you’re literally killing people.

    1. You know who else burned down a city block?

      /Come on, Philly guys!

      1. dropping a bomb from a helicopter is so Wile E. Coyote.

        1. I thought it was so Frank Rizzo.

          1. Then you’d be wrong.

    2. If the virus factors in the piety of your risky behavior before choosing to jump lung, doing church seems very low on the virtue totem pole.

  8. Pretty clear the New York Times staff is chalk full of godless Maoists who seek to destroy western values. So of course this irresponsible piece is published.

    1. Things sure have changed there since the days of Walter Duranty…

  9. This is pretty easy to explain. The NYT is a bastion of religious bigotry.

  10. Churches, Which Account for 0.02% of COVID-19 Cases, Are a ‘Major Source’ of Infection, The New York Times Says

    I suspect they’re desperately grasping at straws to find any possible explanation for an increase in cases other than the most obvious: that thousands of spastic retards gathering in the streets for “peaceful protests” – many not wearing any masks or maintaining “social distance” – have lead to an increase in cases. So they’re latching onto any alternative explanation they can find.

  11. This kind of shit is bait. The NYT is finally learning how to troll from Trump. Say something nakedly inflammatory even if it is completely spurious or an outright lie, then sit back while the opposition punches themselves into exhaustion railing about something completely irrelevant to the real agenda.

    Evangelicals are never going to vote for Biden anyway. The only people they are potentially offending are Jews, who continue to ignore the bigotry towards religions. There was no mention of mosques, which is not accidental, because they don’t have a prayer of keeping those guys from attending services.

    1. There was no mention of mosques, which is not accidental, because they don’t have a prayer of keeping those guys from attending services.

      Plus that would be Islamophobic and/ or racist.

    2. The NYT has practised trolling for decades. If you’re now just becoming aware of that, that is about you, not them.

      Also, such a story has nothing directly to do with who evangelicals vote for. It’s a bullshit talking point for parrots and the wilfully gullible who will incorporate this into their overall beliefs and quote variants to their tik tok friends. It’s a pathetic attempt to sound factual and thereby legitimate without actually parsing the numbers for the same crowd that blithely repeats things like “listen to the scientists” and “settled science”, and neither have the capacity or the desire to parse the numbers either. Essentially part of a character assassination of those they deem political opponents, and thereby marginalizing anything else they have to say.

      1. Yes, when they get a response they immediately attribute it to zealots demanding to be allowed to commit ritual suicide thus self-reinforcing their viewpoint as representing the scientifically informed valiantly attempting to keep the idiot bumpkins from tracking cowshit into the home.

        Having opinions is fine. Conflating issues is unethical. Changing facts is bad. This kind of trolling is fucking evil.

  12. A good percentage of posts to some places have been trying to shame people for trying to get on with life. Every one of them has the same tone, “look at these rubes, laugh, shake your head, and wag your finger.”

  13. Whether you think resuming religious services is worth the risk obviously depends on the value you attach to them.

    “That’s another reason we need government experts — to attach the appropriate value.”

    1. Jacob, please express to your wife my heartfelt admiration and support.

      1. Sorry, should have been main thread

  14. Can’t get herd immunity if you don’t socialize. the rest of the world is locking down till there is a vaccine ready. those backwoods hick rubes in the U.S. may actually have it right, get infected while everyone else is hiding because sooner or later they will get infected and teh U.S. will just keep moving forward

  15. 99.8 should be 99.98, but hey, what’s the difference? (0.18)

  16. Hey!
    Don’t knock the NYT!
    They were progressive enough to hide Stalin’s famines, defend Keynesian economics and makes good material for the bottom of my bird cage.
    So, lay off!

  17. I wonder how many mosques the NYT surveyed for this report?

  18. Maybe Sulzberger hates God. It’s the simplest explanation.

  19. The media is poisoning us.

  20. The Times is once again guilty of intentional innumeracy, as if 650 cases in 40 churches are significant in a population of 330,000,000. Are they that dumb, or do they believe that we are?

  21. Are they that dumb, or do they believe that we are?

    These things are not mutually exclusive.

    1. I think you’re dumb.

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  23. NYT: The true deplorables that Hillary was talking about.

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  25. “meaning the church-related cases identified by the Times account for 0.02 percent of the total.”

    What about the “church-related cases not identified by the Times”?

    Engage in sophistry, much.

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