A federal judge ruled Friday that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear could not order a halt to in-person religious services as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Beshear, speaking Saturday in Frankfort, said that’s fine — but any church, temple or mosque that intends to return to in-person worship should seriously consider whether it can keep its congregation safe from the novel coronavirus.
“All I’m saying is, be careful,” he said. “Make sure that you do it right. To every house of worship, go back when you’re ready, but what I’m requesting and what we really need is, if you haven’t read through the guidance or you can’t meet it, don’t come back just to come back. Make sure that your sanctuary is just that, is a place of safety and comfort for those that are there.”
It's a warning churches in Northern Kentucky are certainly hearing and taking seriously.
"We have to be different after this," said Rev. Tracy Siegman, senior pastor at First Christian Church Disciples of Christ in Covington. "We haven’t just been on hold waiting for things to go back the way they were. We know that life will never be the same."
She said the church has continued Bible studies, recovery groups and worship online, with attendance and participation increasing throughout the pandemic.
Crossroads church in Florence also said it doesn't have any current plans to reopen, though they plan to continue offering online services. St. John United Church of Christ in Bellevue also echoed their sentiments, saying they are not planning to bring back in-person services until they are confident they can do so safely.
Siegman said First Christian is working to figure out new safety policies that will be in place when in-person worship does resume. Masks and social distancing will be required, with some pews roped off to accomplish that. Siegman said she is also recommending they don't sing or offer communion for the first month back.
"There’s a lot of things to consider when returning to church and we can’t just go back to the way things were," she said. "We need to make accommodations so that when we are in person we can say that we are a safe space."
Kentucky’s COVID-19 diagnosis and death numbers have remained low compared to its neighbors — slightly lower than Ohio’s, when adjusted for the relative size of their populations, and far lower than Indiana’s.
None of it will matter if Kentuckians aren’t responsible as they return to work, stores, worship and restaurants, Beshear said.
“If we don’t do this right, it will cause a surge,” Beshear said. “It will push us back. It will harm our economy. I know we’re all worried about our economy, but what we’re seeing right now is a short-term issue. If we can’t transition back the right way, if we don’t follow the rules, if we cause a spike that we could have avoided, that’s what will harm our economy in the long run.”
His pleas echoed similar ones made by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine days before. In his own Thursday news briefing, DeWine warned Ohioans that ending certain quarantine restrictions would bring a natural spike in COVID-19 infections.
“What we have to do is do everything in our power not to let those go very high,” he said.
That means maintaining six feet of distance from people who are not housemates, wearing masks when venturing into public and washing hands frequently and thoroughly, among other personal safety measures.
Beshear said Kentuckians who leave their homes to work or shop should keep a mental note of everyone they interact with in a day — and try to keep that number small, if possible.
State public health commissioner Steven Stack acknowledged the onset of summer could tempt Kentuckians to let their guard down. It should do just the opposite, he said.
“When the weather gets nice and people start going outside and people are really tired of having to have these restrictions, this is exactly the time when I have to urge you to continue to pay attention to these guidelines,” he said.