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Reopened Georgia Church Sparks New Outbreak

After reopening in April, the church will now close "for the foreseeable future."

A church in Georgia learned all-too-well the perils of opening too quickly in a pandemic. After reopening for in-person services in April, the church is now reclosing after several families became infected with COVID-19.

The Catoosa Baptist Temple, an independent Baptist church in Ringgold, was one of the first churches in the state to reopen after Gov. Brian Kemp issued strict sanitary guidelines that include personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, and limited gatherings to groups of fewer than 10 people. The church first held in-person services on April 26 the Christian Post reports. On May 11, after three weeks of services, the church leaders decided to suspend future services after they learned of an outbreak that affected multiple families within the congregation.

“Our hearts are heavy as some of our families are dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 virus, and we ask for your prayers for each of them as they follow the prescribed protocol and recuperate at home,” the church said in a formal statement. “Though we feel very confident of the safe environment we are able to offer in our facilities, the decision was made … that we would discontinue all in-person services again until further notice in an effort of extreme caution for the safety and well-being of our families.” 

The church did not disclose how many members or families had been afflicted with COVID-19, but did note that only about a quarter of the normal congregation had attended the mid-pandemic services. The church also offered a streaming service over the internet.

“Based on the current data that was shared and the low volume of cases in our area at the time, and in an effort to offer our families both options of either attending in-person services or streaming online, we resumed services in the Tabernacle a couple of weeks ago. While approximately a fourth of our congregation chose to attend the in-person services, our other families chose to remain at home and continue enjoying our streaming services,” the church said.

In the statement, the church did note that it had followed Gov. Kemp’s guidelines, saying, “Seating was marked to only permit sitting within the six foot guidelines, all doors were open to allow access without the touching of doors, and attendees were asked to enter in a social distancing manner and were dismissed in a formal manner as well to ensure that the social distancing measures were adhered by all.”

Ringgold is located in northern Georgia in Catoosa County. The small town of 3,600 people sits in the shadow Chattanooga, which is located just across the state line. The Georgia COVID-19 status page shows a total of 72 confirmed cases in Catoosa County with no deaths.

Coronavirus cases in the county spiked a few days before the Catoosa Baptist Temple resumed services. Since April 26, the county has had six confirmed cases with another nine preliminary cases. It is not known whether all of these cases can be traced to the church congregation.

In total, Georgia’s Coronavirus outbreak has continued to decline. Yesterday, only 81 new cases were reported. This is down from a high of 933 on April 28.

Nevertheless, the experience of the Catoosa Baptist Temple is a caution against returning to normal too early. While the church says that it maintained the guidelines, it isn’t known whether members who had not seen each other for weeks were hugging and shaking hands in the parking lot.

Churches have been hot zones for the spread of COVID-19 in many places. Despite that fact, many continue to insist on holding in-person services and decrying closures as unconstitutional and tyrannical.

Past John MacArthur of the Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California has a response to that charge. In a discussion posted to Facebook, MacArthur said that such concerns were “irrelevant” because the shutdown orders did not single out churches but were for the “greater good.”

“In Romans chapter 13, Paul says, ‘You submit yourself to the government, the powers that be.'” MacArthur points out. “But Peter adds to that, ‘You submit yourself to the governor and the king,’ whoever that personal authority is.”

“When you’re told by an authority to do something and it’s for the greater good of the society physically, that’s what you do because that’s what Christians would do,” he adds. “We are not rebels and we’re not defiant, and we don’t flaunt our freedom at the expense of someone else’s health.”

Shelter-in-place cannot go on indefinitely. We have to restart our lives. That includes work, education, and worship. But as we emerge from isolation we must resist the temptation to forget that a deadly virus is still among us. There is still a pandemic and a lapse of caution can reignite the outbreak.

[Full Disclosure: My church plans to hold its first in-person post-pandemic service this Sunday. Church leaders are taking great pains to maintain a safe environment that includes multiple services with a cleaning in between, PPE, social distancing, and reserved seating. The Coronavirus curve in my area has reached a level that is almost nil with only three cases reported yesterday in the two counties that are where most members live.]

If you would like to continue the discussion on social media, you can visit David Thornton’s Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

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