Texas is one of several states that have responded to President Trump’s green light to begin reopening the economy and allowing more public movement and interaction.
Government offices, businesses and perhaps even some schools will reopen or increase their activity in the coming days, and we join officials and observers in recommending that everyone weigh the risks that remain and proceed cautiously and gradually. Religious face the same issues as larger assemblies gain acceptance in the coming weeks.
Ultimately, the decision to reopen rests with each pastor or business owner, and every individual will decide whether and when to begin shopping, dining and joining the church congregations again. Even as orders to cover our faces are lifted, many people are expected to continue protecting themselves until they are comfortable with the level of risk that remains of coronavirus transmission.
The decision is not without controversy; many officials, including some in the government itself, express fears that it might be too soon. They cite the fact that new cases of COVID-19 continue to appear, and a backlog at testing labs leave thousands of suspected cases, which prompted those tests, still undetermined.
Gov. Greg Abbott rightly acknowledges those fears, even as he seeks to mitigate the economic damage of the viral pandemic and subsequent government pronouncements asking people to stay home and limiting the number of people who can be inside a building at any given time. Even before the governor announced that he would allow many of the public restrictions to expire as the month ends, the state had issued an “updated joint guidance” memo, reminding public officials that their ability to regulate houses of worship is limited by the First Amendment’s guaranteed freedom of religion and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Fortunately, religious leaders in the Rio Grande Valley largely have understood the need to reduce public interactions; many have used online services to broadcast services and some have held drivein services, in which people stayed in their cars.
Different churches worship differently, and thus might return to normalcy in different ways. At some houses of worship the congregation, after initial greetings, largely remains seated while the minister leads the assembly in prayer and song; others are more interactive, with distribution of the Eucharist and other personal practices.
Fortunately, many religious leaders might be able to refer to the 2009 H1N1 scare that likewise affected many churches. Catholics, for example, suspended the “sign of peace,” and while the Eucharist was still offered, many churches stopped offering the altar wine that might have accompanied it. In addition, holy water fonts were emptied so that people wouldn’t place their hands in the same vessel as they entered and exited the chapels.
Ultimately, each church leader is best able to determine when to reopen the doors and how to phase back worship practices. We trust that each of those leaders, like business leaders deciding their companies’ fate, will weigh the risks as well as the benefits of reopening, and make the best decisions possible.