On Saturday, U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III issued a temporary restraining order allowing religious worshippers to gather indoors, which had been restricted by executive orders issued by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Dever wrote.
Cooper’s spokesperson, Ford Porter, responded to a Dever’s court ruling: “We don’t want indoor meetings to become hotspots for the virus, and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together inside for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of COVID-19. While our office disagrees with the decision, we will not appeal, but instead urge houses of worship and their leaders to voluntarily follow public health guidance to keep their members safe.”
Some churches around Lake Gaston are planning to open their doors next Sunday, while others plan to hold off until all of the restrictions are lifted.
“It’s exciting to be able to get back together again,” said Lake Gaston Baptist Church Senior Pastor Adam Hammond. “The church is a gathering of people, and we gather for worship and scatter for evangelism.”
After weeks of hosting drive-in and online services, Lake Gaston Baptist Church on Eatons Ferry Road plans to open its gym on Sunday for an indoor service.
According to Hammond, the church is meeting Cooper’s Phase 2 request to allow up to 50 percent occupancy and to follow social distancing guidelines. The 10 a.m. service will be held in the church’s gym, and up to 250 people can join.
“We are going to come in, grab a folding chair from the rack, and find a safe spot six feet from one another. Families can sit together,” Hammond said. “It will be a touchless service; no hugs or handshakes like we normally might have.”
Hammond said that after the service, church staff will collect the chairs and sanitize everything before they are placed back into storage. There will also be hand sanitizer available, and the church is suggesting that everyone wear a mask, though it is not mandatory.
“We expect people to use common sense and take precautions that they would take during any flu season,” Hammond said.
Until now, Lake Gaston Baptist Church has been hosting drive-in services on Sundays and a number of Facebook Live events for Bible studies.
“It’s going to be nice to not have to look through windshields or be in 84-degree heat,” Hammond said. “People are hungry for hope, and we hope we can provide that through God’s word.”
Hammond said that he estimates 100-150 people showed up for the drive-in services, and he expects about 150 will show up this Sunday. The church will still host services on its Facebook page for members with compromised immune systems.
Other N.C. churches, like Antioch Christian Church and Littleton Baptist Church, have not hosted drive-in services and have only been hosting services online.
“We are being very cautious about reopening. It might be a little while before we reopen to in-person worship, mostly because the older demographic of the church,” said David Littles, senior pastor at Littleton Baptist Church. “We do not want to do a 50-percent service. We want to open up and have everyone in church.”
Senior pastor at Antioch Christian Church, Mark Wethington said that he also plans to continue hosting a Sunday service available on the church’s website until more restrictions are lifted.
According to Pastor Kathleen Poulton at Brodnax Assembly of God, churches in Virginia were allowed to start hosting indoor services last Sunday.
“Because of the new mandate, we can operate at 50 percent capacity, and we will practice social distance guidelines,” she said.
The Brodnax Assembly of God was hosting outdoor services and also posting them to their church page. Poulton said they will continue to post their services online for their members who do not feel comfortable joining in person yet.
Cooper’s Phase 2 of reopening, which could start as early as Friday, May 22, states that gatherings at places such as houses of worship and entertainment venues would be allowed at reduced capacity.