Trump deems churches ‘essential’ and calls for them to reopen. Murphy says N.J. church services will remain limited.

Posted May 22, 2020

President Donald Trump announced Friday he has deemed churches and other houses of worship essential in the United States and is calling on governors across the country to allow them to reopen this weekend despite the ongoing threat of the coronavirus.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s office told NJ Advance Media that church services in New Jersey will remain limited despite the president’s call, though Murphy and Trump had a “productive” talk about the issue Friday.

Trump, a Republican, made his announcement during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House, where he didn’t take questions.

“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services," the president said.

Trump said if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.

Indoor church events have been limited to 10 people since Murphy issued stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the governor’s office said. That prohibits typical services but does allow for small gathering and bible studies.

Alyana Alfaro, a spokeswoman for Murphy, said Trump and Murphy on Friday “had a productive discussion on the need to continue to move forward intelligently regarding religious services as New Jersey continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“While the Governor’s orders will remain in effect, this matter continues to be under serious consideration as New Jersey moves toward Phase 2,” Alfaro added.

Murphy, a Democrat, said earlier this month churches can also hold drive-in services if worshipers stay in their cars.

And on Friday, he announced the state is increasing its limit for outdoor gatherings from 10 to 25 people — including for churches — as signs continue to show the outbreak is slowing here.

Murphy on Monday outlined a multi-stage plan for reopening New Jersey and said the state is currently in Stage 1. He did not provide hard dates for the next two stages to begin and stressed the state needs to move “responsibly” to make sure cases and deaths don’t surge again.

New Jersey, a densely populated state of 9 million residents, has reported at least 10,985 deaths attributed to COVID-19, with at least 152,719 cases, since the outbreak began March 4. Only New York has more deaths and cases among American states.

Officials reported 146 new deaths and 1,394 new positive tests in New Jersey on Friday.

A reporter Friday asked White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany what authority Trump has to override governors.

“You’re posing a hypothetical, though,” McEnany responded. "You’re assuming that governors are gonna keep churches shut down and keep mosques shut down and keep synagogues shut down. That is a hypothetical question. We’ll leave it to these faith communities to reopen.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said faith leaders should speak with local health departments about reopening and that people with high-risk factors in places with a high number of cases should consider waiting awhile.

“Maybe they can’t go this week,” Birx said.

But, she added, “there is a way to social distance” in houses of worship.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had prepared a draft of reopening guidelines for churches and other houses of worship weeks ago that included measures like maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings.

But that guidance had been delayed for more than a month by the administration until Trump abruptly changed course Thursday.

“I said, ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said Thursday at a Ford Motor Co. plant repurposed to make ventilators in Michigan. “And they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We've got to get our churches open.”

Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and took issue with some of the businesses that had been allowed to reopen.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential” but not churches, he said. “It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

“These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue, go to their mosque," Trump said.

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