Coronavirus outbreaks reported at some churches with in-person services

WASHINGTON (CNN) - With all 50 states under some plan to reopen, many people are eager to return to their normal activities, like attending religious gatherings, but is it safe for churches to hold services packed with people in such close quarters?

New indications of the dangers of reopening churches during this pandemic: The Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle Church in Ringgold, Ga., and Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Houston have closed their doors for the second time. Several parishioners and leaders of those churches have reportedly tested positive for coronavirus after they reopened in recent weeks.

Officials are investigating whether a priest at the Houston church who died recently died of COVID-19.

“You bring a lot of people together. You put them in close quarters. You have a lot of proximity, people touching, people, you know, saying ‘Peace.' Bringing people together in religious events, where there could be crying, there could be shouting, there could be singing - I think all of those may bring significant risk of infection,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, epidemiologist at the Emory University School of Medicine.

A church in rural Arkansas, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, was what some call a super-spreader.

Two people who went to events there in early March initiated a chain-reaction that infected at least 30 parishioners and killed at least three of them.

Experts are warning it’s not just the formal services associated with churches which are dangerous but also their ancillary events.

“There was a - the case of a choir, where one infected individual spread it to more than 50 just from choir practice. Birthdays and funerals and other events where people are hugging and touching would also be such types of events, to,” said Dr. Leana Wen, public health professor at George Washington University.

The state of New York is testing religious communities in New York City for antibodies of coronavirus and is starting to allow religious gatherings again but only with a maximum of 10 people at a time.

“The last thing we want to do is have a religious ceremony that winds up having more people infected,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

As thousands of churches reopen around the world, ideas of a typical service are going out the window.

This week, Pope Francis celebrated the first public mass in two months in St. Peter’s Basilica but only with a limited number of worshippers.

Father Timothy Pelc in Grosse Pointe Bark, Mich., got creative on Easter Sunday, using a squirt gun to dispense holy water to parishioners driving by.

Health experts are recommending changes like drive-in services in parking lots, virtual services and temporary suspensions of church daycare.

One expert says it shouldn’t be doctors or public officials who mandate those changes.

“I think it is not me as a physician who needs to tell them, the community. I think it’s, I work with the leaders of that community who then tell their congregation and the people who go to those churches and those synagogues and to those mosques what they need to do,” del Rio said.

Is this the end of large religious gatherings like on Christmas Eve, Easter, the Jewish and Muslim holidays? Health experts said it should be more of a pause, but it could be a long one.

One expert said guidelines could come recommending that the next large church gatherings shouldn’t be held until around Christmas of 2021.

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