Over 100 infections of the new coronavirus have been traced back to people who attended an evangelical church service in Frankfurt two weeks ago after restrictions on worship gatherings were eased, according to German officials.
Officials said Friday that a May 10 service at Frankfurt's Evangelical Christian Baptist Church has been linked to new COVID-19 cases in the area even though church leaders said they adhered to social distancing guidelines and disinfected the building.
Hesse Health Minister Kai Klose told Deutsche Presse-Agentur that the 107 COVID-19 cases were traced back to the church gathering after an initial report suggested that 40 attendees of the service tested positive for the virus.
Klose said Sunday that health officials had begun gathering lists of people who attended the church service and those who later came in contact with them.
"Most of them are not particularly sick,” the head of the city’s health department, Rene Gottschalk, told DPA.
Reuters reports that it's not clear whether all 107 people who contracted the virus attended the service or if the figure also includes individuals who contracted the virus from people who were at the service.
The church’s gathering was held after the state of Hesse relaxed lockdown restrictions on worship gatherings on May 1. Chancellor Angela Merkel approved plans to reopen churches and other houses of worship, museums, and businesses as the country began lifting lockdown restrictions earlier this month.
Klose said the worshipers affected by the virus are residents of Frankfurt and three other districts in Hesse state.
"We are deeply dismayed and sad that the infection has found its way into the community and has spread with great dynamism," a statement on the church's website reads. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all sick and relatives who are going through a difficult time. Our consolation is that many sick people are well on the way to recovery and some have already recovered."
In an earlier interview with the German news agency, church elder Wladimir Pritzkau was not able to recall how many people attended the May 10 service but said that six had been hospitalized.
Pritzkau, however, he stressed that the church followed all the appropriate social distancing guidelines, including the requirement that attendees be spaced 5 feet apart.
“We followed all the rules,” Pritzkau was quoted as saying.
The New York Times reports that Frankfurt's Evangelical Christian Baptist Church has again suspended its in-person services and will instead offer online services for the time being.
According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been over 181,100 cases of coronavirus in Germany, with over 8,300 deaths as of Tuesday afternoon.
As some governments in the U.S. and across the globe consider whether to allow churches to reconvene in-person gatherings, critics have voiced concerns that such gatherings could result in a spike of coronavirus cases.
In Georgia, the Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle halted its in-person services two weeks after reopening because members and leaders tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released a report suggesting that over 60 COVID-19 cases were linked back to events held at an Arkansas church in early March before the congregation was aware that its members had been infected with the coronavirus.
Across the globe, legal challenges have been filed against state and local orders banning or restricting religious worship gatherings.
Last week, France’s top administrative court struck down the government’s ban on religious gatherings on grounds that such a ban “constitutes a serious and manifest violation of the freedom of worship.”
One of the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases in France is tied to an evangelical church gathering held in mid-February.
In the U.S., there have been mixed reactions to President Donald Trump’s call last week for states to ease restrictions on religious gatherings.
While some evangelical leaders praised Trump for urging states to allow in-person church services on Sunday, some leaders of predominantly black or Hispanic congregations vowed to remain closed until the virus is contained.
“Several states have decided to relax restrictions and permit regular activities in defiance of these recommendations. These premature re-openings will once again put tens of thousands of our COGIC saints in harm’s way,” a statement from the leadership of the Church of God in Christ reads.
“We urge you, our pastors, to adhere to the recommendations of the CDC and NIAID and to refrain from prematurely opening your churches and congregating in your buildings before we have credible and substantiated evidence that it is safe to do so.”
In its interim guidelines released Friday, the CDC encourages church staff and attendees older than age 2 to wear masks. It also states that attendees should remain 6 feet apart, whether standing in a line or seated.
CDC guidelines also advise churches to “temporarily limit” the use of prayer books and hymnals that are often touched by multiple people, and to cease using a communal cup for communion.
It also encourages churches to add outdoor services or additional in-person worship service times so that the number of congregants attending each service is reduced.