Covid and Local Churches

The German state of Hesse relaxed restrictions on worship as of May 1, provided that parishioners maintain 5 foot social distancing and hand sanitizer made available. The Evangelical Christian Baptist Church in Frankfurt held in-person services on Sunday, May 10. Church officials said they followed the rules. Thirteen days later on May 23 the BBC reported there were “over 40 cases” of Covid-19 traced to that one church service. By the next day there were numerous media reports (led by the Wall Street Journal) that German authorities had traced “over 100” cases of Covid-19 back to that single church service–and contact tracers were still working on the case. 

This is entirely parallel to the now infamous Skagit Chorale case in Mt. Vernon, Washington, in March where more fifty-two out of sixty participants became infected and two died over several weeks following a socially distanced choir practice. 

Mr. Trump, apparently oblivious to the detailed report of the Skagit Choral case presented on the CDC website, threatened to “override” governors who refused to allow reopening of churches. 

Neither of the state governments of Washington or Idaho loosened regulations on in-person large gatherings in response to Trump’s pandering to his base, but his grandstanding stirred up defiance of regulations on both sides of the border among his far right supporters. Here we have a “leader” stirring up rebellion against legitimate government.

In Spokane the spotlight shown once again on Matt Shea and his prime ally, the Reverend Ken Peters of the Covenant Christian Church (3506 W Princeton Ave in near north Spokane). Peters and his flock held in-person church services without any attempt at social distancing on May 3rd, 10th, 17th, and 24th in self-righteous open defiance of state health regulations. The Spokesman article from May 24th is worth reading. The cast of characters and the organization are familiar: Ken Peters, pastor at Covenant and leader of “The Church at Planned Parenthood”; Matt Shea (State Rep, LD4), according to Peters “in the audience” and “fighting for the Constitution.” Pastor Gabe Blomgren, another fixture at Covenant, was one of the speakers at Shea’s May 1st stay-home protest. 

Meanwhile, next door in north Idaho, Matt Shea’s right wing ally, ID Rep Heather Scott, was busy holding a crowded meeting in a church in Bonners Ferry three days earlier
Another meeting was advertised for last evening, May 28, at the Priest River Community Church in Priest River, ID, entitled “The Virus that tried to kill our Constitution and What You Can do about it” in open defiance of Idaho health regulations.

Many local churches besides those mentioned in the Spokesman article chose not to hold in-person services on May 24th, in deference to the health of their members, their members families, and the community at large.  The gatherings of unmasked, shoulder-to-shoulder, singing worshipers seem mostly confined to churches allied to certain far right politicians in our region, particularly Matt Shea, whose ties to Ken Peters, Gabe Blomgren, and the Covenant Church were manifest at Shea’s May 1 protest of the stay-home order. Ken Peters’ and his Covenant Church’s open defiance of state Covid-19 public health guidance serves primarily as political nose-thumbing, a denial of the common interest of disease prevention. Ken Peters and his Covenant Church apparently believe that their political/religious faith exempts them from epidemiology.

Will they “get away” with their defiance? They might. but just one unwittingly infected and still asymptomatic, bare-faced, singing parishioner could convert a Covenant Church service into a case study worse than the Skagit Chorale or the Frankfurt Baptist Church. (In both of those outbreaks at least social distancing and hand-washing were practiced,) Should Peter’s and Shea’s and Scott’s risky defiance result in an outbreak, contacts in the wider community would be infected and some eventually die before contact tracers are even aware of the origin of the outbreak.

For the time being the odds are not high of such an event and, sadly, lack of a Covenant Church-associated outbreak of Covid-19 will be cited by Peters, Shea, and Scott as evidence of their political and religious righteousness. No law enforcement challenge of Covenant in-person services will occur, in spite of their whining about violation of their “constitutional rights.” Compliance with public health regulations in these United States is largely dependent on community opinion. 

To that end we all should recognize, separate out, and shun pastors, parishioners, and politicians who flaunt public health regulations. Familiarize yourself with these people, their names and their ideologies. Then thank your church and the churches of your neighbors and friends for sensibly following regulations meant to protect us all. 

Keep to the high ground,