The bishops said the last time churches canceled services en masse because of health concerns was for the flu of 1918.
The announcement came hours after D.C. health officials asked organizations to postpone any “mass gatherings” of 1,000 people or more in the city until at least March 31. Offices for the D.C. diocese will be closed and employees are encouraged to work from home, a spokesman said.
Budde said her tipping point came this morning after sitting at her computer, reading and rereading guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about encouraging people to stay away from large crowds. She said she also was getting texts from priests about worship service guidelines.
“They were feeling increasingly anxious,” she said. “The confusion was getting higher by the minute.”
She ultimately made the decision after lengthy consultations with other local and national church leaders.
Budde, who is 60, noted that the Episcopal Church skews older, and leaders are particularly concerned about putting older members at risk. She said the decision wasn’t easy, especially with Easter coming up in a few weeks. But she’s hoping the two weeks off will allow priests to rest, remain healthy and focus on their community.
“The consequences are enormous financially,” she said. “We can’t put money first. If the church put money first, shame on us. We have to do what’s right. We’re part of the social fabric. We need to be part of the communal response to stem the tide of this virus.”
Budde said the diocese plans to continue its social service plans for the needy, and is figuring out how to do that while protecting those served and volunteers. However, in general, “the expectation is that buildings will be closed and empty of people,” said National Cathedral spokesman Kevin Eckstrom. Budde said groups that rent space will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Church-run schools will make their own decisions about opening and closing, Budde said.
The National Cathedral is the country’s second-largest cathedral, and a popular tourist and community spot, and draws about 418,000 visitors each year, according to its website. It is the seat of the presiding bishop of the national denomination, Michael Curry. On an average Sunday, about 20,000 watch the service’s live stream, Budde said.
The diocese will stream services from the Cathedral on Sundays — with no audience. Curry will preside on one of the Sundays and Budde will at the other.
The District’s first confirmed case of coronavirus was the pastor of a large Episcopal parish in Georgetown, Christ Church. The Rev. Timothy Cole has been hospitalized and is in stable condition.
The church has been shut down, and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has urged more than 500 worshipers who may have encountered Cole as he presided over services March 1 and at other points in the past two weeks to self-quarantine for 14 days. Christ Church’s organist, Tom Smith, 39, also had been infected with the virus, as has a parishioner who lives in Loudoun County.
Christ Church said Wednesday that D.C. Health has now recommended that people who visited the church March 4-6 should also self-quarantine.
Goff said the Virginia diocese decided to cancel services because of the connections it has to Christ Church.
“We don’t know of any direct contacts people had, but we are interconnected, so this is to exercise caution,” she said.
Church offices and schools in Virginia will remain open, Goff said. “We know we can’t stop the virus, but we know we can take part in slowing the spread,” Goff said.
On Tuesday, Robert Pace, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, tested positive for coronavirus and was hospitalized, according to a news release. Trinity, which was a polling place for an election primary on March 3, has canceled all worship services for Sunday and a Lenten program that was scheduled for Wednesday.
Pace attended the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes’s annual conference in late February in Louisville, the same conference attended by Cole. After Cole’s story unfolded on Sunday, Pace met with his doctor and was diagnosed Tuesday. Pace does not know Cole, nor is he aware of encountering him at the conference, according to a church email.
Pace fell ill on Feb. 27 and did not return to the church building until March 4. At that time, he had been coughing, but was fever free. After a Lenten program, he and an assistant rector wiped down surfaces in the church with Clorox, according to the church’s email.
The organizers of the conference said Wednesday that another person at the conference had fallen ill as well. In a message to attendees, organizers told them to contact health-care providers if they develop symptoms including shortness of breath and fever.
As of Wednesday, Washington-area Catholic churches had not announced cancellations of services. The Archdiocese of Seattle suspended masses effective immediately, becoming the first diocese in the United States to do so.
Jacquelyn Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Church’s Basilica of the National Shrine, said that the basilica has several services on any given Sunday but none surpasses 1,000 people. However, she said they are considering contingency plans for Holy Week and Easter, when services usually surpass 1,000.
Special Holy Day services such as Christmas and Easter at the Basilica are live-streamed, but weekly services are not. On March 1, the Basilica suspended Communion wine and shaking hands during Mass, and the water from the holy fonts were drained of the water.
Hayes said so far, the basilica has not seen a drop-off in Mass attendance. On Wednesday, its noon Mass had 200 people.
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.