Around the country, pastors and people want to go back to church. Some are suing to overcome prohibitions and some are trying to convince elected leaders to loosen restrictions. Just today, Ed Stetzer posted an article on RNS titled: If Costco can reopen safely, why not Illinois churches, Gov. Pritzker?
In his article, Stetzer proclaims: “If Costco can make it work, so can the churches.”
Maybe they can. However, I want to point out that church is different than shopping at Costco.
Stetzer calls on us to use science in our decision making which is what I want to do. My thoughts are based partly on an excellent blog post by UMass Dartmouth Biology professor Erin Bromage. Bromage teaches courses on immunology and infectious diseases and has a research program in the evolution of the immune system.
My ideas here are also based on my experience as a church attender and a shopper. Having done both for much of my life, I can safely say that full participation in church and going shopping are different activities.
Church activities spread the virus
First, let me pick some relevant material from Bromage’s article. An important principle developed by Bromage is this:
Remember the formula: Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time
To get to this principle, Bromage discusses the ways humans spread a virus. We spread it most efficiently by sneezing and coughing, but we also spread it by speaking and breathing. Sneezing and coughing expels hundreds of millions of viral particles, so it is easy enough to understand why sick people should stay home. They shouldn’t go to church or shop.
But let’s take speaking since that is done in church a lot but not as much in the grocery store, especially these days. Bromage estimates it takes about 5 minutes of face-to-face speaking to transmit enough virus to make an infection possible. Church meeting supporters might complain that we all will be wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. Well, if you really will, then that will help. However, there is the variable of time in Bromage’s formula.
When people are shopping in Costco and many grocery stores, they are moving around in large open spaces. They go in, do their shopping, and leave. That is not how people do church. They go in, sing (more about that in a minute), talk, and sit and listen to a 30-50 minute sermon, stand around and talk some more and then leave, often in a smaller room. Sitting around for a couple of hours with a super spreader in the room isn’t like shopping in Costco.
Bromage describes several instances of how infections spread in restaurants, work places, sports venues, parties, and choir practice.
For instance, Bromage summarizes a case where a single carrier infected most of a choir in a Washington city even though the community choir members took certain precautions during their practice. The thing many Christians love to do in church that they don’t do in Costco is sing. Bromage describes how singing spreads the virus:
Singing, to a greater degree than talking, aerosolizes respiratory droplets extraordinarily well. Deep-breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two and half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place. Over a period of 4 days, 45 of the 60 choir members developed symptoms, 2 died. The youngest infected was 31, but they averaged 67 years old.
Recall Bromage’s formula: infection equals exposure x time.
Bromage describes a restaurant scenario where an infected person at one table led to infections in people sitting at adjacent tables. The airflow in the room apparently carried low levels of virus to the people sitting at the adjacent table. Churches could work around this as we move into summer, but not if they don’t know how church is different than shopping.
Public Health v. Civil Rights
In a crisis, it is easy to get polarized and I have been pleasantly surprised at how well evangelicals have followed good practices in moving to online services. Of late, however, more voices have arisen suggesting that churches have a right to meet and that if people can gather in shops, they should be able to gather in church. As I point out, these are not similar activities.
If one looks at church activities and commercial activities through a civil rights lens only, then one could make a case that there shouldn’t be any discrimination. However, looking at these activities through a public health lens, there are important differences which place a burden on churches (or any group) to demonstrate how they will address the problems inherent in their activities.
If churches are going to meet, then they need to take this information into account. They need to spread people out, consider not singing for long sets (if at all), and having shorter sermons (finally!). Outdoor services might be an option in some locations. Online messages throughout the week should be available. Who said everything must be done on Sunday?
In any case, I hope it is clear that a public health lens isn’t designed to discriminate against religion. Church is different than shopping. Isn’t that a good thing?