Nationwide, religious services are among the mass gatherings where the COVID-19 virus is believed to have been spread from person to person.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends maintaining staying at home if at all possible and maintaining 6 feet of separation from other people if you have to go out for essential work or to obtain essential supplies.
As information about the pandemic spread, most churches ceased public gatherings and switched to online services.
As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, Catholic churches all over the world started suspending public services and encouraging the faithful to watch online. In mid-March, Catholic churches in Florida, including the Diocese of Venice and the Diocese of Palm Beach (which include Catholic churches in the Lake Okeechobee area), released members from their religious obligation to attend Sunday Mass, and closed the churches to the public. Church services are available on cable television and on the internet. This week, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Okeechobee added services on their Facebook page.
The National Association of Evangelicals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the National Muslim Task Force on COVID-19 all called for suspending in-person services.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis put religious services on the list of “essential businesses,” which leaves the decision about holding services up to the individual churches and the communities they serve.
In Okeechobee County, Sheriff Noel Stephen maintains that the 10-person maximum applies to churches.
Across the nation, there are reports of COVID-19 cases connected to mass gatherings at churches.
Christ Fellowship, a multi-site, multi-congregational church, will host its annual Easter services entirely online for the first time in the church’s history. The church that gathers over 30,000 people in South Florida every weekend recently moved all of its operations to a digital format amidst the suspension of mass gatherings due to the spread of COVID-19. Since then, the church has seen its congregation truly adopt its common phrase that “church is not just a building you walk into, but a family you can belong to” as over half a million people have watched church online each weekend since shifting all services to online.
In some areas, the spread of the virus at religious services continues to be a concern. According to an article in the Sacramento Bee, nearly a third of Sacramento County, California’s COVID-19 cases are connected to churches. The “mega church” Bethany Slavic Missionary Church, a Pentecostal church in Sacramento, has been connected to 71 cases. According to a report in The Guardian, one parishioner has died, the church’s senior pastor has been hospitalized and two other church leaders are ill. That church has now switched to online services.
Health department officials have also expressed concern that the virus is also being transmitted by church members who visit each other for Bible study in their homes. Even if the gathering is of fewer than 10 people, if a study leader attends more than one group, that spreads the potential exposure for all involved.