WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump said Friday that he has deemed churches, syangogues and mosques “essential” and called on governors across the country to allow them to reopen this weekend despite the threat of spreading the coronavirus.
“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House, where he didn’t take questions. He said if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had prepared a draft of reopening guidelines for churches and other houses of worship weeks ago that included measures like maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings.
But that guidance had been delayed for more than a month by the administration until Trump abruptly changed course Thursday.
“I said, ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said Thursday at a Ford Motor Co. plant repurposed to make ventilators in Michigan. “And they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We’ve got to get our churches open.”
Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and took issue with some of the businesses that had been allowed to reopen.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential” but not churches, he said. “It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”
“These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue, go to their mosque,” he said.
Following Trump’s announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith that include taking steps to limit the size of gatherings and considering holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.
“It is safe to reopen your churches if you do so in accordance with the guidelines,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House’s coronavirus task force, said that faith community leaders should be in touch with their local health departments and can take steps to mitigate risks, including making sure those who are at high risk of severe complications remain protected.
“There’s a way for us to work together to have social distancing and safety for people so we decrease the amount of exposure that anyone would have to an asymptomatic,” she said.
Some welcomed the move, including Kelly Shackelford, president of the conservative First Liberty Institute.
“The discrimination that has been occurring against churches and houses of worship has been shocking,” he said in a statement. “Americans are going to malls and restaurants. They need to be able to go to their houses of worship.”
But Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, said it was “completely irresponsible” for Trump to command a mass reopening of houses of worship.
“Faith is essential and community is necessary; however, neither requires endangering the people who seek to participate in them,” he said. “The virus does not discriminate between types of gatherings, and neither should the president.”
On Wednesday New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced religious services will be allowed to resume if limited to 10 or fewer participants with social distancing and masks in place. The state also is allowing drive-in and parking lot services.
Cuomo stressed that caution must be exercised to make sure the religious gatherings do not become an opportunity for the virus to spread further, pointing to the case of an Orthodox synagogue in suburban New York City’s Westchester County that was found at the center of a cluster of cases in March.
New York’s guidance comes as some Orthodox communities grapple with conflicting guidance over resuming services outdoors. Rabbis in communities from Texas to Cleveland to New York’s Long Island have agreed to disagree over how to move forward as states begin to lift restrictions.
Earlier this month, leaders of the Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization for Orthodox synagogues, released guidance on reopening synagogues after a webinar with Dr. Anthony Fauci. The organization pointed to outdoor services as a possible first step in resuming prayer but urged caution in considering any resumption of services.
“The issuance of this guidance does NOT imply that any reopening should be done at this point,” the guide says in bold print.
In Massachusetts, rabbis said they would not reopen immediately even though the governor included houses of worship in the state’s first phase of reopening.