Worship in the Time of COVID-19, and Orders Keep Coming

covid-19 church
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Gov. DeSantis finally issued a statewide stay-at-home order last Wednesday in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor, though, exempted places of worship, calling them “essential business.”

But Boca Raton and Delray Beach, like many cities – and Palm Beach County — don’t classify churches, synagogues, mosques and temples as essential businesses. Both cities also want essential businesses that are staying open to follow federal health guidelines and restrict gatherings to fewer than 10 people.

Some rogue pastors across Florida, though, have been holding regular, in-person services, despite the risk to public health. Fortunately, clergy in Boca Raton and Delray Beach have been following local and federal guidance and moving to virtual services. Spokeswomen in both cities said there are no reports of dangerous outliers.

As the crisis built, the Boca Raton Interfaith Clergy Association issued a statement, signed by Father Andrew Sherman and Rabbi David Steinhardt. Sherman has been the rector of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church for 14 years. Steinhardt has been the head rabbi at B’nai Torah Congregation for more than two decades.

In the statement, Sherman and Steinhardt said the association’s leaders “understand that there will be no official statewide prohibition against religious gatherings. We also have heard from medical advisers including experts in contagious diseases that gatherings of multiples of people, no matter where they take place, increase the likelihood of the spread of COVID-19 and thus sickness and death.

B’Nai Torah Congregation

“We all affirm life. And so we beg the religious community to take a lead and encourage people to pray at home, to watch religious services online and on television, and use these days to support life and the battle against the spread of this deadly disease. We wish to protect ourselves and others.

“We pray with you and for each other. We pray in the name of the Creator of Life.”

Though theirs is the responsible sentiment, for observant Christians and Jews, the timing of the restrictions on public gatherings hardly could be worse. Holy Week – the most sacred period in Christianity — began two days ago with Palm Sunday and culminates this Sunday with Easter. Passover, which commemorates the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, begins Wednesday.

Still, all responsible clerical leaders understand current priorities. “We want to preserve life,” Steinhardt said. “We feel a great responsibility.”

Numerous examples show how large religious gatherings can become “super spreader” events, transmitting the virus to many people. It happened at a funeral in rural Georgia before the governor’s long-delayed stay-at-home order. It happened at a Pentecostal church in Sacramento, Calif., that defied orders against holding services. It happened with a religious sect in South Korea whose infected members at one point made up 60 percent of the nation’s caseload.

Sherman said he and Steinhardt issued the statement “to speak to the larger community.” Area clergy, he said, “need to play a leadership role” in protecting public health.

Yet he and the staff at St. Gregory’s “feel the pain of separation.” Church services are “life-giving. They truly define who we are. So without them, how do we keep our connection to God?”

These days, we do so through technology, which Sherman said has been “really challenging” for some older congregants. So St. Gregory’s has been offering tutorials. He also understands the personal anguish of separation. His mother lives in Boca Raton’s St. Andrews Estates, and he can’t visit her.

But she, too, has become an online worshiper at St. Gregory’s. And as Sherman tells his members, “God is not quarantined.”

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In addition to its normal duties, B’nai Torah is delivering meals and collecting facemasks. Eighty volunteers regularly call 1,400 homes in an attempt to “keep the community together by staying in touch.”

Pastorally, the challenges are unique. Before we spoke Monday, Steinhardt had been on the phone with a couple whose son in New York had just died from the virus. They hadn’t been able to see him.

“The magnitude of that pain,” Rabbi Steinhardt said, “is just so great.” How can he and the congregation answer it? “You have to recognize that pain and tell them that we will be there with them.” The son’s name will be mentioned during services. So will the names of the parents. There will be a virtual kaddish, the Jewish prayer of the dead.

“I’ve never been busier,” Steinhardt said. Like the restrictions, that will be true until further notice.

DeSantis continues to confuse

desantis
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Photo: TNS via ZUMA Wire

Last week typified DeSantis’ belated, confusing response to the pandemic.

He issued that stay-at-home order on Wednesday. Two days later, he issued another executive order with this supposedly clarifying language: This order shall supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.”

What did that mean? Could Palm Beach County still close community pools and private golf courses? The short answer is yes. What about other actions or orders?

According to a review by Boca Raton’s legal team, the order “only preempts (supersedes) to the extent a local authority seeks to add to the essential list” of businesses. It “does not affect” whether a city or county may consider any other business to be non-essential.

In addition, the order “does not dictate whether additional social distancing or group gathering requirements can be placed on essential services or essential activities. Local authorities can do so both on individuals and on businesses/organizations.” None of them can avoid city or county codes.

Delray Beach reached the same conclusion. “The city,” a spokeswoman said, is not “preempted from imposing more restrictive regulations than the state.”

Members of the public may be excused, though, for being confused. There are state orders, county orders and city orders, all of which are updated. Delray Beach, for example, declared a state of emergency on March 13, then closed City Hall 10 days later and imposed a curfew a week after that. Things are changing that quickly.

In general, though, the guidance is simple. Stay home if you can. If you’re out – at work or running errands – stay six feet apart and in groups of fewer than 10.

And wait for the next order.

And the mall

Along with the travel and dining industries, retail is suffering the most because of the virus. Last week, Simon Property Group, which owns Town Center Mall in Boca Raton, furloughed 30 percent of its employees. Simon is the largest mall owner in the country.

Feeding Delray

Delray Beach will hold another food delivery from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on Wednesday at Catherine Strong Park. The city is holding the event in conjunction with Feeding South Florida. The food is first come, first served until supplies last.

The Addison and BHH team up

Event venue The Addison is joining Boca Helping Hands in getting food to the homebound and homeless.

Last week, The Addison announced that it would donate 700 meals a week to the longtime charitable organization. Drivers will deliver some of the meals to people who can’t leave their homes. The rest will be for pickup by clients at Boca Helping Hands locations.

Executive Director Greg Hazle said the group had been delivering 170 meals per week when the virus crisis began. Now, about 250 are seeking lunches. He called the Addison’s help “an incredible offer from a wonderful partner, whose help will be particularly meaningful over the difficult few months ahead.”

Drought update

I wrote last week that South Florida is approaching drought conditions as the level of Lake Okeechobee drops low enough to limit boat traffic. Drought conditions could mean watering restrictions, but Boca Raton and Delray Beach might not have the same problem as cities whose public water supplies are limited.

A Boca Raton spokeswoman confirmed that point. She sent an email from Utilities Director Chris Helfrich noting that West Palm Beach, for example, relies on surface water that comes only from rainfall. “Boca Raton,” Helfrich said, “does NOT have this issue.”

Boca Raton relies on wells “peppered across the city” that provide “a very consistent water supply.” Helfrich also confirmed, though, that the 16-county South Florida Water Management District could issue rules limiting consumption.

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