SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Wednesday that it will hold a major conference in April that features speeches by top leaders without any attendees because of the spread of the coronavirus.
It marks the first time in more than 60 years since the Utah-based faith has taken this extraordinary step of barring church members from attending in person.
The twice-yearly conference usually brings about 100,000 to Salt Lake City over two days. Instead, the speeches will only be broadcast via television and the internet.
The only people allowed inside the church conference center on April 4-5 will be top leaders, their spouses, musicians, choir members and technicians, the faith widely known as the Mormon church said in a news release.
The decision was made after consulting with government and medical leaders, the church said. Church members are also being discouraged from gathering at local churches or buildings to watch the conference together in areas where the virus is a concern.
“We want to be good global citizens and do what we can to control this contagious illness,” the church said.
Banning the public from attending a conference where church leaders provide spiritual guidance and sometimes make news is quite rare in the religion’s history but not unprecedented.
Flu epidemics forced the church to postpone the conference in 1919 by two months and cancel the conference in the fall of 1957, according to a church history of the conference. During World War II, only church leaders attended the conference because of wartime travel restrictions.
For many church members, staying home to watch conference speeches won’t feel abnormal. Hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints members regularly watch from their living rooms and attend only occasionally or on special occasions because tickets are limited.
The announcement came on the same day that the World Health Organization declared that the global coronavirus crisis is now a pandemic. It follows cancellations of many major conferences around the globe and comes as some sporting leagues are barring people from attending games.
The faith is based in Utah, where state officials said Wednesday a third person has been diagnosed with coronavirus. Unlike the first two people, the man is younger than 60. He had traveled to Europe and came in close conctact with someone who had the virus, the Utah Department of Health said in a news release.
Both the state of Utah and the capital city of Salt Lake City have preemptively declared state of emergencies. The University of Utah tweeted that it will announce a decision Thursday morning about whether in-person classes will continue.
The religion also said Wednesday it is cancelling regional leadership conferences in Asia, Europe and U.S. and Canada and that young church members preparing to go to missionary training centers in Utah and England will instead receive video training.
The moves mark the latest steps taken by the faith as it responds to the coronavirus outbreak.
The faith had previously announced it was cancelling a key leadership meeting scheduled before the conference that brings about 300 leaders from the U.S. and other countries. They gather behind closed doors in the meetings to discuss church policies, sometimes leading to major public announcements about decisions.
The church had already decided before this latest decision that church members living outside the U.S. should not travel to the U.S. for the conference. More than half of the faith’s 16 million members live outside the United States.
The faith has also temporarily closed temples in Asia and limited missionary activity in several Asian countries.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 61,000 have so far recovered.