"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.