Faith leaders decide whether to reopen after President Trump announcement

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Houses of worship that had planned on being closed now have the option of reopening, according to President Trump's Friday afternoon announcement declaring them essential during the coronavirus pandemic.

"People are demanding to go to church, synagogues, to their mosques," Trump said. "I call upon governors to allow houses of worship to open right now."

But Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf says churches were never closed.

"We actually never closed religious organizations," said Wolf. "If you're a leader of any religious organization, I think your first mission is to keep your parishioners safe."

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Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller is Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia agrees.

"The church was never closed. The church is more than just gathering in a sanctuary," said Waller, who survived coronavirus himself.
"What the president just did was political pandering to the extreme right wing to make a point for their votes," Waller said.

The president, meanwhile, points to religious leaders who he says have been asking him to declare houses of worship essential.

Many places of worship have turned to online services. Now faith leaders have to make the a decision on whether to reopen their sanctuaries.

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The Archdiocese of Philadelphia told Action News that it will wait on input from Governor Wolf before deciding what to do about Mass services.

"Well I believe the houses of worship are essential," said Pastor Garth Gittens of Calvary Baptist Church in West Philadelphia. "We closed because of a safety issue. For us it's more personal than political."

The church has lost several members to coronavirus. Church leaders are working carefully alongside nurses to decide on a re-opening strategy which may include taking temperatures and spacing out worship.

Other churches like Bible Baptist Church in Clementon, New Jersey had already reopened in defiance of state laws.

Now, houses of worship are left to decide whether to re-open. If they do, they'll do so under new CDC guidelines. Those guidelines encourage churches to update their emergency operations plans while working with local health officials.

They're also encouraged to address issues such as social distancing and to think about alternatives to common practices. For example, the CDC suggests nodding or waving instead of shaking hands. They are also encouraged to consider online collections or a collection box instead of passing the collection plate.

The guidelines also encourage houses of worship to increase their cleaning, encourage healthy hygiene and to be ready to close again... at least temporarily... if a member test positive for COVID19. A reality that hits close to home for Calvary's congregation.

"We are definitely going to be prayerful," said Gittens, "so when God opens this it will be well done."

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