Some churches refuse to close in wake of coronavirus despite warnings from governor

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks to churchgoers.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks to churchgoers. | Facebook/Andy Beshear

Some churches including Southern Baptist congregations in Kentucky say they have no plans to shutter amid the new coronavirus epidemic despite a request from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear urging houses of worship to close temporarily Wednesday to help prevent community spread of the deadly virus.

“We know this is community spread and we need to get ahead of it,” Beshear said in a statement on the virus. “It is important for everybody out there to be calm, practice good hygiene and reduce the risk of exposure for themselves and others.”

Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director-Treasurer Todd Gray told Baptist Press that despite the governor’s request, many of their churches plan on staying open while taking steps to limit community spread of the virus.

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"It appears that most Kentucky Baptist church leaders are planning to carry on with their regularly scheduled services unless things change between now and Sunday," Gray said. "Several Kentucky Baptist pastors will urge additional precautions by asking those who are sick to please stay home and those who are concerned to feel free to also stay home."

On Thursday, WLOU radio station callers 60 years old and older told WAVE 3 News and St. Stephen Baptist Church media coordinator Krystal Goodner that they planned on attending church this weekend because they are covered by their faith.

"We will be there praising the Lord like we should be,” one caller said.

Goodner noted that when it comes with people and their faith in Kentucky, "you do not mess with church!” 

She said St. Stephen Church will be enforcing CDC guidelines and encouraging members to wash their hands, but it doesn’t appear they will shutter like some churches that will grant the governor’s request to close temporarily.

The Rev. Steve Willis, senior pastor at First Baptist Church Ashland, told WCHS that while the Bible tells Christians to obey secular governments, his church will have to weigh the governor’s request appropriately. For now, however, his church plans on staying open with precautions.

"We should consider the request from the governor because the Bible tells us we are to submit to the governing authorities as long as they don't contradict the Word of God," he said. "We'll make the decisions that we think are best for our congregation, but we will also keep in consideration the request the governor has made," Willis said.

Other churches like First Christian Church in Ashland told WCHS that they will have a shorter service.

"Those that are coming are requested to make sure they are washing their hands, taking all precautions and sitting a little distance from each other here in the sanctuary," pastor Larry Sivis said.

He further explained that they will not pass the offering plate around and had made adjustments for the Lord’s Supper.

"When they come forward, they will receive from the communion tray and individual cup," Sivis said. "It's sealed that we have ordered. It has the juice in the cup as well as the wafer."

Sick people and vulnerable groups are being asked not to attend services but watch it online from their computer to be safe.

Mackey Gaskin, teaching pastor at First Baptist Church Ashland, said the request to close churches can be difficult for people who are looking for hope in a time of crisis.

"When groups do come together, that's when we can talk and share experiences and our fears are always worse when we are isolated," Gaskin said.

Beshear argued that the move to limit social gatherings is about saving lives, especially for vulnerable groups like older adults and people with underlying medical conditions.

“These steps we recommend are not made lightly,” Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner for the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said Wednesday. “Please work with us to make them effective.”

Both Beshear and Dr. Stack said they are urging church closures due to the close proximity to others in gatherings, the communal activities and close interaction, and because many attendees are members of high-risk populations.

“I believe God gives us wisdom to protect each other and we should do that. I believe that it is our job to offer those protections,” Beshear said.

As of Wednesday, Kentucky had eight confirmed cases of the new coronavirus. More than 139,000 cases have been confirmed globally along with just over 5,000 deaths as of Friday.

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