Just seven people, including Ostring, took their places in the five rows of pews, which made social distancing achievable almost by default. Communion was offered in individual cups. The sermon, delivered by parishioner Rafael Palma, did not mention the pandemic afflicting the nation. He focused instead on “Christ’s death and resurrection” with Easter Sunday a week away.
“If we stop all churches for this, what will be the next crisis that shuts the churches?” said Ostring, 63, who acknowledged that if his church were larger, he might not have held the public service Sunday. “We don’t want anyone here to get sick. But we also do not want to violate our right to the free practice of religion.”
For the religious, one of the crueler elements of the coronavirus and its potent contagiousness is that places where people go in times of fear, in search of solace in faith and in friends, are closed in many states to stop the spread of the disease. Churches, temples and other places of worship nationwide — where congregants sit close, take Communion, share hugs and handshakes and pecks on the cheek — have served as hothouses for the virus, with religious gatherings exacerbating outbreaks in New Rochelle, N.Y.; Washington, D.C.; Glenview, Ill.; and Sacramento, among others.
These open-or-close decisions, often made by politicians at the state and local levels of government, to some appear to place constitutional religious rights in conflict with the demands of public health at a time when more than 1,000 Americans are dying each day because of the virus. Services live-streamed on Facebook and drive-through worship have been used as workarounds from Florida to California.
The in-person gatherings in some cases go against many stay-at-home orders and bans on assemblies of more than 10 people, which President Trump has endorsed. Eight states do not have such orders, but there have been arguments within the White House that a national regulation should be put in place as infections accelerate.
Here in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced a statewide stay-at-home order two weeks ago, more than 14,000 people are infected with the virus, and 330 have died. The rate, in the northern parts of the state at least, is slowing. But the state lags in testing, so the numbers might be low estimates.
More than a dozen states exempt churches from their stay-at-home regulations, arguing that the government is exceeding its constitutional power to shut down a religious institution, regardless of the public health questions at stake. California does not, officials say.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who under pressure last week issued a statewide stay-at-home order, said he was exempting churches, arguing that the government does not have the authority to effectively force them to close.
But some houses of worship and gatherings of religious leaders have proved particularly dangerous in areas where the virus has been prevalent.
Following the outbreak in Sacramento, Mayor Darrell Steinberg (D) made clear that disregard for the prohibition on church gatherings could prompt police intervention. Steinberg’s wife serves as cantor at the city’s largest synagogue, which now streams its services online.
“This is a time when people are coming to church for hope and meaning, and in that way, faith has never been more important,” said Steinberg, a member of Congregation B’nai Israel, one of the oldest west of the Mississippi. “I believe passionately in the free exercise of religion, but I must say I am outraged that anyone would use the free exercise of religion to justify gathering together at this time.”
“To claim that the free exercise of religion is absolute and outweighs the obvious life-and-death risk of praying together right now,” Steinberg continued, “well, it’s blasphemy itself.”
Sacramento police have been advised that in some cases, it might be permissible to disperse a congregation. Steinberg said those acts would happen only when there is a “blatant disregard” for the prohibition.
“We’re not going to use arresting people as the way to address this,” the mayor said. “Social pressure is much more appropriate, and that social pressure includes making it clear that these are legal orders being defied.”
The concern extends nationally, given the reach of the virus, from megacities to small towns.
In late February, six people who attended an Episcopal church conference at the Omni Hotel in downtown Louisville tested positive for the coronavirus. North Carolina public health officials say “multiple cases” of the virus are linked to a March event held by the Faith Assembly Christian Center at the Millennium Hotel Durham, despite a ban on gatherings of more than 100 people at the time.
Rural Minnesota has reported at least nine coronavirus cases traced to a church. And 43 fell ill, one fatally, after attending a March 15 service at the Life Church of Glenview, in Glenview, Ill., a Chicago suburb. At least 10 members tested positive for the coronavirus. The service was held several days before the Illinois governor imposed a stay-at-home order.
There are other cases. But none has reached the scope of the tragedy at the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church, a 3,500-member congregation that occupies a fenced compound here in southeast Sacramento.
Public health officials say 71 congregants of the church, a major gathering place for the city’s large Eastern European immigrant community, have been infected by the coronavirus. As of Saturday, that infection number accounts for 18 percent of Sacramento County’s total cases. Ten people have died in the county.
The church is now closed, its high gates locked to outsiders and a police car parked outside the main sanctuary. Signs posted are in English and Russian, one in large print on the front door announcing: “No Any Services.”
Among the sick is senior pastor Adam Bondaruk, who has been at the church for three decades. The church administrator, Viktor Lyulkin, said by phone that Bondaruk, a Ukrainian immigrant, has been hospitalized and is in stable condition.
“We’ll find a way to celebrate Palm Sunday and Easter as a community when this is all over,” Lyulkin said. The church held one online service Sunday.
Houses of worship are susceptible as coronavirus hot spots for a simple reason: They bring people together, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publication this past week noted that singing, which can disperse the respiratory droplets that carry the virus, is another aspect of the concern about places of worship.
The service at Rivers of Living Water Church includes performers using an electric guitar and drums, and Ostring plays the piano as the congregations sings. The service began Sunday with a brief prayer and a long hymn. No one wore a protective mask.
“This is a tough situation because when people are under stress, you don’t want to remove their stress coping mechanisms,” Nuzzo said.
On a quiet Palm Sunday in Jupiter, Fla., families slowly trickled into one of the few churches in Palm Beach County that is still offering in-person services.
“We’re offering hope,” said Jill Barry, whose husband, Steve, is a pastor at Ascend Church. “We’re keeping social distance, but we want to keep our doors open to people.”
Roxroy Edmondson was literally keeping the door open — holding it so people wouldn’t have to touch it to get inside the storefront church.
“I don’t feel connected online,” Edmondson said as he offered hand sanitizer to congregants. “It feels so much better to me to have the message in person.”
A poll released this week of Protestant pastors found that the number of churches holding services dropped from 99 percent on March 1 to 64 percent by March 15, and then to 7 percent by March 29, according to Lifeway Christian Resources. Lifeway is the publishing division of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Polls also have shown that those who lean conservative politically are more skeptical of the virus’s seriousness and danger. Until early March, Trump falsely claimed the coronavirus cases were decreasing and said the disease would disappear “like a miracle.”
Those who attend church more frequently are much more likely to identify as or lean Republican, polls also show. Forty-four percent of the GOP leaners go to religious services at least weekly, compared with 29 percent of Democrats.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declared last week that religious services are essential to the lives of Texans. Pastor Jason Sides used Facebook Live to tell his flock he was determined to open Christian World Ministries in San Antonio.
Sides had held a prayer service on Wednesday, and 75 people came into the 1,000-person sanctuary for the first time in weeks.
“If church is as essential to you as a trip to the pharmacy or Walmart, the doors will be open,” Sides said Wednesday. “We will be trusting God to take care of us.”
But by the weekend, Sides had had second thoughts.
San Antonio city leaders pleaded with churches Friday to use remote services. Sides said he struggled with the decision, keeping in mind the dozens of calls from members telling him their homes were not safe, their marriages were falling apart, their jobs lost.
“We hear a lot about the external, the import of washing hands and not touching the face,” Sides said. “But what of the internal?”
The solution for Sides was another drive-in service, at which the pastor uses a public-address system to preach from atop the flatbed of an 18-wheeler.
Church member Tracy Williams said that she would rather be in the church sanctuary but that there was something beautiful about sitting in the car, in the sunshine, lifting her hands out the window. When Sides spoke a word that resonated, the members honked their horns for an “Amen!”
“I know people may not understand, but for me, church is a big part of my life, and as long as something is set up within the church and it’s within the confines of the law, yes I am definitely going to go to church,” said Williams, 56, of San Antonio. “People are feeling isolated, and there is strength in being in the house of God, hearing the word and gathering with like-minded believers.”
The Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of the megachurch Life Tabernacle outside Baton Rouge, has been defying an emergency order by the governor banning gatherings of more than 50 people. Police on Tuesday issued a misdemeanor summons to Spell, who says that he had 1,000 people in his church Sunday and that he was planning to hold services again this Sunday.
“We feel we are being persecuted for our faith by being told to close our doors and not gather,” he said. He noted that some stores are open, including clinics that perform abortions. “You’re saying religion isn’t essential, but Target is.”
Palma, who preached at Rivers of Living Water here on Sunday, said he is not afraid of the virus. “Not at all, not at all,” the 43-year-old said. “I have my faith. I don’t fear this and never have.”
In a baseball cap declaring “God is in Control,” Gary Works took his seat on a bench along the side of the Sacramento sanctuary, only about the size of a large suburban living room. The other church he attends regularly, River Valley Baptist, closed for the day.
“But Pastor Dan is my mentor, and this is where I want to be,” Works said.
Works is a recovering methamphetamine addict who was at one time homeless; he has been sober for 18 years. During that time, he said, he has missed no more than five Sunday services at the church.
“I just don’t miss church,” said Works, 69. “This is a big part of my recovery, and I’m not going to abandon what has saved my life.”
Boorstein reported from Washington, Hernández from San Antonio, and Rozsa from Jupiter, Fla.