Roughly a dozen church leaders who sit on a city-formed committee on reopening Columbus expressed reluctance to open their doors too soon amid the COVID-19 pandemic at a meeting with city leaders Monday.
The pastors, members of the Churches and Funeral Homes Subcommittee of Restart Columbus, had a roughly two-hour meeting with Mayor Robert Smith, City Attorney Jeff Turnage and several other public officials. Directors of funeral homes will meet with city officials at a later date.
Smith, who hosted the meeting, assured church leaders no government authority would infringe upon church activities out of respect for religious freedom. The city’s police department will not issue citations to large church gatherings if that were to happen, he said, and Gov. Tate Reeves also announced on several occasions the state government would not dictate the reopening or shutdown of church events.
“When you decide to open up, that’s on you,” Smith said.
But faced with the rising number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, Smith said he strongly recommended the churches refrain from reopening until June.
“It’s optional. I’m only asking you to have a game plan,” he said. “The death toll has moved up. Numbers are increasing daily. The crisis is definitely not over.”
County Emergency Services Director Cindy Lawrence, who gave an update on the number of cases in the county during the meeting, said federal guidelines still recommend against church gatherings. The county had seen 126 confirmed cases with six deaths as of press time, according to Mississippi State Department of Health’s website.
“Churches could be the deadliest place in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lawrence said. “The singing of church choirs may be the worst practice one’s participating (in).”
Many pastors said at the meeting they were hesitant to reopen for worship services due to the number of cases and deaths.
Nathaniel Houston, president of the Northeast Mississippi Baptist State Convention, said during the meeting many congregants are afraid of the virus.
“It has been said many times that people are fearful, and they are,” he said.
“Attending churches, weddings, funerals is not recommended (by Mississippi State Department of Health),” he added, “and it’s leading to COVID-19 transmission to others.”
There seems to be a consensus among most pastors it may be risky to reopen too soon, Turnage told The Dispatch Monday afternoon. Some said it was “foolish” to gather people under the current circumstance, he said.
“Some others said, ‘I’ve changed my mind about it,'” Turnage said. “‘I was thinking we ought to go ahead and open the churches, but having heard from Cindy Lawrence and (Amy Bogue, vice president of) Allegro Clinic, I think it might be wise to continue to get people to attend via streaming services or remotely.'”
Statewide, there have been 11,432 cases and 528 deaths, according to Mississippi State Department of Health’s website this morning.
The city has yet to appoint a committee chair, city spokesperson Joe Dillon told The Dispatch. No committee members could be reached for comment by press time.
If churches were to reopen, Lawrence said they should strongly consider providing masks and other protective gear to all the attendees and implement precautionary measures such as deep cleaning and social distancing.
“You really need to consider providing masks for all your members,” she said. “They need some type of protection.”
During the meeting, Smith posed several questions for churches to take into consideration, including procedures for collecting offerings, conducting communion services and cleaning high-contact areas before, between and after services, Turnage told The Dispatch.
Some church leaders are not in a rush to reopen, Turnage said, because they have more people participating online through live-streamed services than normal.
Other churches have designed phased-out plans to adjust to a new normal.
Todd Stevens, lead pastor at Mt. Vernon Church and who does not sit on the committee, told The Dispatch the church is now in the second phase of a three-step plan to slowly reopen for services, but without a set date. The church is not offering in-person services now, he said, but has loosened some restrictions.
Some staff have returned to work on-site, and encouraged Facebook watch parties of services in small in-person groups following the state guidelines, which allow up to 10 people indoors and up to 20 for outdoor gatherings, according to a video Stevens posted last week. Child ministry and in-person activities for the elderly are still canceled.
“Preschoolers won’t social distance themselves,” he said. “We just don’t want to take chances for getting anybody sick.”
Like church leaders on the committee, Stevens said he hopes the state does not recommend reopening too quickly. The church chose to remain closed and has been streaming its services online, he said, even though the governor has left the decision-making to pastors.
“We are voluntarily following all recommendations,” Stevens said.
But the future is largely uncertain, he said, due to the ever-changing state guidelines. Some businesses are allowed a fixed number of people gathering, whereas others are capped at a certain percentage of their capacity.
“Not knowing which direction they are going to go makes it really challenging to plan,” he said. “We are totally in a guessing game. We are making plans for what the service would look like, but we don’t know when we can pull the trigger.”
Members from the church placed on the Church and Funeral Homes Subcommittee
■ Nathaniel Houston, Sr. Miller’s Chapel Church, President of the Northeast Mississippi Baptist State Convention
■ Charles Whitney, Grace Baptist Church
■ Sandra DePriest, Good Shepherd Episcopal
■ Jason Delgado, Vibrant Church
■ Therman Cunningham Sr., Oak Grove MB Church
■ Joe L. Peoples, Stephen Chapel MB Church
■ Willie Gardner, Bethlehem MB Church
■ Bobby Sanderson, First Baptist Church
■ Bobby McCarter, Sr., Charity Mission FGBC
■ James A Boyd, Zion Gate MB Church
■ Maxine Hall, Full Gospel Ministry
■ Timothy Bailey, A Prepared Table Ministry
■ Breck Ladd, Fairview Baptist Church
■ Rayfield Evins, Jr. Southside MB Church
■ Steven L. James, United Christian
■ Russell Mord, Golden Triangle Baptist Association
(Note: Not everyone is in attendance at the Monday meeting after the mayor limited the number of attendees to 20. Source: City of Columbus)
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.