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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

The Pandemic

Health officials have faith empty pews will help control COVID-19

COVID-19 task force concerned that churches still meeting

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter delivers a COVID-19 update Monday, March 30, 2020. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)
Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter delivers a COVID-19 update in March 2020. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Pastor Ricky Floyd said he was trying to be faithful, not defiant, when he held a public worship service the Sunday after the mayor, the Health Department and others asked him not to.

<strong>Ricky Floyd</strong>
Ricky Floyd

“I feel strongly compelled to do this service today,” Floyd told his congregation Sunday, March 21, at Pursuit of God Transformation Center in Frayser.

“You’ve been laying up in your house being injected with fear of the coronavirus. I’ve come to give you a B-12 shot. I want to increase your faith, hope and love to endure this crisis.”

Pastor Noel Hutchinson said he was trying to be faithful, not fearful, when he moved his weekly worship online that Sunday.

“We need to recognize that when you are asked to not to have worship, it’s not persecution but safety. We aren’t in normal circumstances,” he told members of Kingdom Fellowship in Frayser that Sunday via Facebook and Twitter.

“Please stay home if you don’t have to go out so the numbers of infected people can begin to drop. And don’t fear. Do your part, and trust God to do the rest.”

<strong>Noel Hutchinson</strong>
Noel Hutchinson

Two weekends have passed since Mayor Jim Strickland asked that “all worship services either be streamed online or postponed until further notice.”

Most local clergy have canceled on-site worship services and other gatherings of 10 or more people, joining the effort to contain a deadly and highly infectious virus that thrives on social gatherings.

But at meetings of the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force this week, members expressed concern and dismay that some churches were still holding on-site worship services this past Sunday.

<strong>Patrice Robinson</strong>
Patrice Robinson

Patrice Robinson, Memphis City Council chairperson, said she saw people gathered at several churches in Whitehaven Sunday.

Dr. Jeff Warren, a physician and City Council member, said the city’s 311 online support center received complaints about three churches still holding services last Sunday.

One was New Hope Church of God in Christ at 2455 Lamar. The church’s published phone number was disconnected this week. Another was Christ Connection at 3839 Forest Hill Irene. It doesn’t have a published number. A third church wasn’t identified.

Kenny Moody, Strickland’s special assistant, will reiterate the task force’s concerns on a conference call with 300 local pastors on Wednesday, April 1.

“We’re not trying to stop people from worshiping,” Warren said, “We’re trying to stop a deadly virus from spreading. If they can move their services online, they should. If they can’t, they should cancel.”

The pressure to move all church gatherings online has set off a tense debate about whether canceling on-site services is an act of faith or a betrayal of it.

In Memphis, 62-year-old Tim Russell, an assistant pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, died Monday night of COVID-19 complications. As confirmed cases of COVID-19 and related deaths rise locally and nationally, officials are working to increase social distancing.

They’re paying special attention to faith-based gatherings.

Earlier this week, a megachurch pastor in Tampa, Florida, who held two services last Sunday was booked on charges of unlawful assembly and violating the county’s stay-at-home order.

Local officials say there are no plans to arrest pastors who continue to hold on-site services.

But on March 25, Haushalter and Dr. Bruce Randolph, county health officer, issued a health directive that stated: “All gatherings are strongly discouraged, and those with more than 10 people are prohibited.” That includes “faith-based” gatherings.

Wednesday afternoon, Randolph said individuals and businesses who fail to comply can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Warren said task force members have discussed sending code enforcement officers to churches that are still meeting in person this weekend.

“We’re trying to prevent the sort of infection clusters or mini-outbreaks of coronavirus that have occurred in other places,” Warren said.

Public health officials say the novel coronavirus is transmitted through “respiratory droplets” emitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

But health officials also think the virus can be transmitted through smaller aerosols transmitted by singing or forceful breathing.

The virus suspended in a mist can remain “viable and infectious” for up to three hours, according to a study published March 17 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In Seattle, dozens of members of the same church choir have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are ill with the symptoms. At least three have been hospitalized, and two have died.

In Albany, Georgia, dozens of infections and a number of subsequent deaths have been traced to two church funerals held in late February and early March.

A large prayer meeting at a megachurch in France set off that nation’s biggest cluster of COVID-19. So far, 2,500 confirmed cases and 17 deaths have been linked to that gathering.

A large church in South Korea has triggered more than 5,000 cases and dozens of deaths there.

Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department, said public health officials are concerned about the risk of any gatherings of more than 10 people.

That not only includes worship services but other church gatherings such as Bible studies, funerals and choir practices.

<strong>Alisa Haushalter</strong>
Alisa Haushalter

“I’ve seen tuberculosis spread through choirs,” Haushalter said. “When there’s a lot of talking or singing together, the germs come out.”

A few days before he held an on-site worship service March 22, Floyd posted a Facebook message telling “older saints, scared saints, coughing and sneezing saints” to stay home.

“People of faith hope and love, let’s have church this Sunday,” Floyd wrote, “and pray for the above group.”

They did. But the next week, Floyd changed his mind. He canceled the on-site service and conducted worship on Facebook Live.

Other pastors did the same.

Bishop Charles Patterson led a scaled-down assembly at Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ on March 22.

“I’m convinced that the coronavirus is no match for God,” he told scattered saints in the sanctuary, including about 20 members of the church’s young adult and youth choir.

The following week, the church’s service was livestreamed only. “We are praying for each of you and ask that you STAY HOME and STAY SAFE!!” Patterson posted on the church’s Facebook page.

Haushalter said that’s the message public health officials are trying to convey.

“Everyone is safer at home,” she said. “Younger, healthier people might not show any symptoms, or they might have very minor symptoms, but they can still carry the virus from church back home or to work.”

Hutchinson, mission director of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, has been imploring his fellow pastors to cancel on-site services for several weeks.

”Church gatherings have proven to be an incubator for this virus,” said Hutchinson, who knows two pastors in New York who died due to COVID-19 complications. “They caught it either in worship or at a pastor’s banquet.”

”I’ve had ministers tell me that because I have online worship services, I don’t have faith,” he said.

Floyd said he regrets that the pandemic has caused more rancor in the church.

”We’ve fought about a lot of issues over the years, about who can lead worship and who can join the church,” Floyd said.

”Now we’re fighting about whether to even have worship. One side is being called fearmongers, and the other side fools. Tensions are rising.”

Floyd doesn’t regret holding the March 22 service. Six people joined the church that day, including a woman who had just moved here from New York City.

“She just happened to show up that day,” Floyd said. “I’m thankful we were there for her. If the church isn’t there for people in need, where will they go?”

This story first appeared at under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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