OLYMPIA — Washington’s houses of worship can start to hold services again — with restrictions — under new coronavirus safety guidance from the state, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday.
The guidelines will allow up to 100 people, excluding religious staff, to meet outdoors at the property of a faith organization anywhere in the state.
In the second phase of the governor’s four-part reopening plan — which 24 counties have entered — faith organizations will be allowed to hold services indoors with attendance for those services restricted to 25% of building capacity or 50 people, whichever is less.
Faith groups in the second phase would also be allowed to provide in-home services for up to five people.
In a news conference Wednesday, Inslee said one reason for relaxing restrictions on religious services, rather than, for instance, school graduation events, was because of the strong constitutional protections for worship.
“Religion is constitutionally protected,” said Inslee, adding later: “So we think it deserves an extra degree of acuity in figuring out what is in the realm of the possible.”
Yet some in the religious community remained frustrated. Mark Miloscia, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, on Wednesday said the relaxed restrictions still violate constitutional protections on worship.
Miloscia pointed to the fact that big-box retail stores have remained open and that he had recently gone through a Burger King drive-thru for a meal, but he couldn’t worship at his King County church.
“And that’s completely unacceptable, and I think it’s clearly against the First Amendment,” said Miloscia.
But the phased reopening is necessary for faith communities to help protect their neighbors, said Bishop Shelley Bryan Wee of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
“As leaders, in order to uphold the sanctity of life and protect the most vulnerable, we need to take into account that what is safe in one part of Washington is not safe in other parts,” Wee said during Wednesday’s news conference. “We have to hold in tension, liberty and safety.”
Also joining Inslee Wednesday were Aneelah Afzali of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound and Rabbi Yosef Schtroks of Chabad Jewish Center of Olympia.
The second-phase steps announced Wednesday will start immediately in the 24 counties approved to reopen more quickly: Adams, Asotin, Columbia, Cowlitz, Ferry, Garfield, Grant, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, Kittitas, Lewis, Lincoln, Mason, Pacific, Pend Oreille, San Juan, Skamania, Spokane, Stevens, Thurston, Wahkiakum, Walla Walla and Whitman.
State health officials have said June 1 is the target date for counties to move to the second phase, which allows for the reopening of a host of business activity, with protections against the virus.
But that June 1 date would only apply if public health metrics look favorable, health officials have said.
It remains to be seen whether King, Pierce, Snohomish and other counties with higher infection rates — and which remain in the first phase — will advance to the second phase on Monday.
Inslee said Wednesday he would have more to announce about that in the coming days.
The state has confirmed 20,406 cases of coronavirus as of Wednesday, with 1,095 deaths, according to Washington’s Department of Health.
Wednesday’s guidance is the latest in a weekslong string of guidelines issued by the governor’s office allowing different sectors of business and society to reopen. The guidance can be found at: governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/COVID19Phase1and2ReligiousAndFaithBasedGuidance.pdf.
Across the nation, decisions by governors to restrict religious services have pitted constitutional rights against emergency powers being used to slow the spread of the virus.
Last week, President Donald Trump said houses of worship and churches are “essential” and called on governors to allow them to open.
But that tension also exists against the fact that COVID-19 is known to spread easily among indoor gatherings. Religious services have been identified as the source of mass infections nationwide, including in California, where nine infections have been traced to one Mother’s Day church service in Redwood Valley, according to the Los Angeles Times. One local example: a Skagit County choir practice at a church in March, where one person with the virus infected 52 others.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed that episode — which happened before the stay-at-home order and ultimately killed two — a “superspreader event.”
Afzali, of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, said her community lost out on the “communal aspects” of this year’s celebrations for Ramadan and Eid-al Fitr. The association’s mosque was the first in the nation to cancel Friday services in response to the virus, she said.
“And we did so recognizing that we don’t worship our places of worship, we worship God,” Afzali said Wednesday. “And we are commanded to preserve life and uphold community well-being.”