- President Trump designated churches and other houses of worship as essential services on Friday.
- There have been multiple reports of super-spreader events at US churches and synagogues, as well as a South Korean temple.
- During these events, an infected person passed the coronavirus to an unusually high number of others, sparking local outbreaks.
- The CDC warns that large indoor gatherings, particularly church events, can be potential disease hotspots.
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President Donald Trump just declared in-person worship an essential service.
“I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now,” he said during a Friday announcement at the White House. Trump added that he wouldn’t hesitate to “override” state governors that refused to comply.
Although many people want to return to houses of worship, especially during a scary and stressful time, mounting evidence shows these places to be among the riskiest for coronavirus spread.
Clusters of infections can often be traced back to a super-spreader event, in which one person infects an atypically large number of people. So far, these events have shared a few key characteristics: They’ve mostly been indoors and put lots of people from different households in close, extended contact. That’s precisely the type of gathering that churches, mosques, and synagogues facilitate.
“You can’t have a super-spreading event unless there are a lot of people around, so you have to be very careful still about gatherings of people of any size — that includes religious services,” William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert from Vanderbilt University, told Business Insider.
“The virus doesn’t respect any religions,” he added.
Research has found time and again that the risk of coronavirus transmission is much higher indoors, in poorly ventilated spaces where lots of people have sustained contact. That’s because it primarily spreads via droplets that fly through the air when an infected person coughs, sings, talks, or sneezes.
“Any gathering, from the point of view of the virus, is ideal,” Schaffner said. “People congregate, hug each other, exchange stories, and thank you very much, the virus is going to go from me to you.”
A recent study found that talking loudly can produce enough droplets to transmit the coronavirus, and that those droplets could linger in the air for at least eight minutes. Vigorous singing, too, has been linked to the virus’ spread.
That’s what makes religious services dangerous. Trump indicated that it’s up to religious leaders to minimize these risk factors.
“Ministers, pastors, rabbis, and imams and other faith leaders will make sure their congregations are safe as they gather and pray,” Trump said on Friday. “They love their congregations, they love their people, they don’t want anything bad to happen to them or to anyone else.”
Super-spreader events at churches and a synagogue
In early March, a 57-year-old Arkansas pastor and his wife attended church events and a bible study group a few days before they developed coronavirus symptoms.
Of the 92 people they came into contact with at the church, 35 got sick. Seven had to be hospitalized. Three died.