Livingway Christian Church in San Antonio is one of many that have moved services online, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says it isn't mandatory. Photo by Joe Diaz.
Governors from New England to California issued mandatory stay-at-home orders as COVID-19 spread across the nation last month, but two notable holdouts came under heavy criticism before following suit.
Critics of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis probably now wish they had held their fire. The proclamations they eventually issued may prove to be a cure that worsens the disease.
Abbott acted first. On Tuesday he ordered Texans to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household,” except when necessary to obtain or provide essential services. Like many states, Texas used a list compiled by the federal Department of Homeland Security to define essential businesses and infrastructure – but then Abbott carved out an additional exception from his social distancing order for “religious services conducted in churches, congregations and houses of worship.”
“If religious services cannot be conducted from home or through remote services, they should be conducted ... by implementing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott added. The word “should” makes social distancing at religious services optional under Abbott’s order.
The Texas governor went on to specifically supersede any local restrictions that are either stricter or more lenient than his order – in other words, all of them. Some Texas localities had already banned all nonessential gatherings of more than 10 people, and they considered gatherings for worship nonessential. Abbott overruled them. Some might consider this an act of faith or tolerance. Many others – and doubtless nearly all public health officials – will see his position as favoring a religious fringe, the general public welfare be damned.
Abbott’s order did not specifically require nonessential businesses to close. That decision might allow a lawyer in a one-person office to go to work, or a real estate agent to show a home under social distancing conditions. This, too, is less strict than the rules many other states have adopted. But it could at least be justified on the theory that the risks are low and Texas had, thus far, seen comparatively little of the disease.
DeSantis followed suit the next day, but in a manner that was inept, wishy-washy or deceptive – take your pick.
On Wednesday afternoon, DeSantis issued an order closing nonessential businesses statewide. Like Abbott, he defined “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” as a permissible “essential activity.” This order by DeSantis superseded local restrictions only to the extent they permitted activities that were not allowed under the statewide rules.
But that night, with little fanfare, DeSantis issued a second order to amend the first. The amendment declared that the governor’s statewide rules now supersede any local restrictions. This had the effect of immediately invalidating local rules against large religious services that were in effect in the state’s COVID-19 focal point in Miami-Dade and nearby South Florida counties, as well as in the Tampa and Orlando metropolitan areas and elsewhere. One Tampa-area pastor had already been charged with violating local assembly restrictions the previous Sunday.
Florida is not the only state where religious leaders are flouting orders to stop large gatherings. Last week, a Louisiana pastor was issued a misdemeanor summons by police for ignoring an executive order limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 people. The pastor said he had hosted about 500 worshipers the previous Sunday. Unlike DeSantis – or Abbott – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards did not carve out an exception for religious purposes that could allow dozens or hundreds of people to gather.
These orders are even more alarming because it is peak season on the religious calendar, rivaled only by December – and maybe not even that. Yesterday was Palm Sunday; next Sunday is Easter. Jews will celebrate Passover beginning Wednesday night. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins on April 23.
The two governors, both Republicans, are not wrong in acknowledging that many people draw comfort and support from religious activity, which can be particularly important amid the stress, fear, isolation and increasing personal loss brought by the pandemic. But that does not justify, in any way, their confusion of religious imperatives with secular duty. The congregant who attends a service on Sunday may go to the supermarket or bank or post office on Tuesday, exposing the workers who are heroically supporting shelter-in-place imperatives at significant personal risk. Or that congregant may become the intensive care patient who infects a nurse or doctor 10 days later. Or a single congregant may become a super-spreader, infecting an entire religious community before ever knowing they are ill.
It happened in South Korea. And then it happened again in New Rochelle, New York. Abbott and DeSantis have learned nothing from the tragic consequences of those earlier accidents. If – or when – it happens in Florida or Texas on these governors’ watch, it will not be an accident. It will be the direct consequence of foolishness or fecklessness.
Both of these governors took steps to keep out-of-staters away from their borders to avoid importing the disease, before President Trump called for (but did not impose) a national shelter-in-place policy against travel from COVID-19 hot spots. Closing the door to outsiders while facilitating internal spread shows a remarkable blind spot in their leadership. Is it cold political calculation, a sop to part of their state’s GOP political base? Is it a reflection of personal religious faith, or a mistaken view of First Amendment religious freedoms? Or is it a combination of these factors? I have no way to know. What I do know is that it makes no difference to the virus, and so it will make no difference to its future victims.
Responsible religious leaders around the globe have shut down physical congregations to protect the faithful, along with everyone else. Pope Francis gives his homily to an empty St. Peter’s Square. This weekend, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly known as the Mormons, although the church now eschews that name) held its widely followed semiannual General Conference in a digital format. Only a relative handful of congregations still insist on meeting in person.
Those worshipers have a right to their beliefs. They have a right to practice their faiths. But they do not have a right to endanger the general welfare, let alone the handful of individuals who are keeping society functioning when most daily activity is shut down.
It is particularly tragic that this blind spot afflicts governors of two states that, between them, are home to 60 million Americans, more than one-sixth of the nation’s population. They are now the single biggest argument in favor of a national stay-at-home edict from President Donald Trump. It is not clear that Trump has the power to issue such an order, let alone the means to enforce one. Most Republicans (and some others) would agree that none ought to be necessary. States elect their own chief executives. Governors are equally responsible to their citizens as the president, and more directly accountable.
Being responsible carries the obligation to act responsibly. In carving out a thoughtless, needless exception to restrictions on mass gathering – even those imposed by responsible local leaders – Abbott and DeSantis have lost sight of their fundamental responsibility to protect their all their citizens from avoidable harm. I hope their mistakes will not carry a big cost, but I fear they will.