At least two churches have closed their doors again after reopening at the end of April/beginning of May. Since the reopenings, several people affiliated with Holy Ghost Church in Texas and Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19, and one church leader has passed away in what might have been a virus-related death.
“Our hearts are heavy as some of our families are dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 virus, and we ask for your prayers for each of them as they follow the prescribed protocol and recuperate at home,” Catoosa Baptist said in a statement, as reported by an ABC News affiliate. “Though we feel very confident of the safe environment we are able to offer in our facilities, the decision was made last night that we would discontinue all in-person services again until further notice in an effort of extreme caution for the safety and well being of our families.”
Catoosa Baptist, Holy Ghost Church Close Again
Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle, an independent Baptist church in Ringgold, Georgia, reopened for in-person worship on April 26, reports The Christian Post. The church decided to close again on May 11 after the virus manifested itself among several of the church’s families. Catoosa Baptist did not say how many people had tested positive, although ABC reports there are three known COVID-19 cases connected to the church.
The church’s statement says that church leaders made the decision to reopen because of “the current data that was shared and the low volume of cases in our area at the time.” Leaders also hoped to give members the option to worship in person as well as online. About a quarter of the congregation attended in-person worship services during the time the church was open.
The church emphasized that those who attended practiced social distancing throughout the services. The organizers made sure doors were open as people walked in and asked members “to enter in a social distancing manner.” Attendees sat sit six feet apart from one another during the service and also observed social distancing as they left.
Catoosa Baptist made the decision to reopen following Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s announcement that houses of worship, as well as various businesses (including gyms, theaters, restaurants, and salons), could reopen as long as they followed safety precautions. The governor’s decision sparked strong responses from some Georgia pastors, one of whom compared reopening the state to “opening caskets.”
In a video clarifying his church’s decision-making, Catoosa Pastor Justin Gazaway stressed that the decision to reopen came after hours of deliberation among the church’s leaders and was made in full compliance with state and local guidelines. Leaders decided to reopen, said Gazaway, specifically for the members—the reopening was not announced publicly. Before Catoosa reopened, the pastor reviewed the safety guidelines with the congregation, encouraging anyone who was at risk to stay home. The leadership simply wanted to offer an in-person worship option to people who were already working and going out in the community. “We made it crystal clear,” said Gazaway. “It’s only a choice…Many of our people chose not to come.”
While there are some people associated with the church who have COVID-19, the pastor said that at no time did the church act recklessly or in rebellion against state and local leaders. He said, “We are law-abiding citizens. We love our city. We love our county, and we obviously love our church…We went about what we did with utmost caution and utmost care, and the decisions that we made were just done out of extra precaution. We didn’t shut down because we had an outbreak in our church. I don’t know how that became the narrative.”
The Holy Ghost Church in Houston, Texas, has faced a similar situation. After reopening on May 2, the church canceled all masses indefinitely as of May 14. The cancellation followed the death of Father Donnell Kirchner at age 79 on May 13. In a statement released May 18, the church said that the cause of Kirchner’s death was unknown, but that he had been diagnosed with pneumonia. Rather than being admitted to the hospital after his diagnosis, the priest was given medication and sent back to his residence, which he shared with seven other members of his religious order. After Kirchner’s death, Holy Ghost church leaders decided to test those members for COVID-19 and to cancel services, even though the parish had followed safety precautions and social distancing since reopening.
Over the past several days, five of the members of Kirchner’s order have found out they had tested positive for COVID-19, and two of those five had participated in the services held since the church’s reopening. Holy Ghost has encouraged all attendees present at those masses to closely monitor their symptoms, adding, “We ask you to please keep everyone impacted by this illness in your prayers.”