MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - It’s been over two months since places of worship have been able to open their doors for in-house services, and many pastors in Montgomery say it’s still too soon.
Under Alabama’s current amended safer at home order, church services can be held if guests maintain a six-foot distance. However, coronavirus cases have more than doubled in Montgomery County since the beginning of May and some pastors say opening would only put the community more at risk.
According to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health, Montgomery started the month with 355 coronavirus cases, and two weeks later 753 people were diagnosed.
In a recent White House report obtained by NBC News, Montgomery was listed under “locations to watch” as cases in the capital city continue to rise. The report said the Montgomery area has seen more than 100 percent week-to-week increases in new cases.
Many pastors fear that if they open their doors, churches could easily become a breeding ground for the virus.
Montgomery First Baptist Church Pastor Jay Wolf is on Gov. Ivey’s task force chair for opening houses of worship. Wolf said with the increased number of new infections in Montgomery, churches need to be patient in reopening.
“The last thing we want to do with 7,000 churches in Alabama would be to start infection centers where you would have outbreaks in churches after churches and then begin to flood our medical systems,” Wolf said. “We don’t want to add to the problem, we want to be a solution to the problem.”
Lester Spencer, the lead pastor at Saint James Church in Montgomery, said they want to put people’s safety first.
“In a house of worship, where people are congregated together very closely, it can be very very dangerous,” Spencer said. “So we are going to exercise extreme caution on reopening dates. We told our people we are going to be following the task force for reopening houses of worship guidelines and we will follow those very strictly and very closely.”
Spencer is also a member of Gov. Ivey’s task force. He said one of the task force’s guidelines for reopening calls for a two-week downward trend in cases before houses of worship can even begin to think about opening.
Right now, the River Region is on an upward trend.
Churches are continuing to offer their services virtually through Zoom, Facebook, and other online platforms. Spencer and Wolf both said they will continue to provide these services for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t think we have ever reached more people than what we are reaching now through social media, through live streaming, through our broadcast, [and] through Zoom phone calls,” said Wolf. “The doors to the sanctuary may be closed, but the ministry doors are wide open.”
“We are continuing to do ministry full speed ahead,” Spencer said. “In fact, I think in some ways now we are busier than we’ve ever been because everything is video-driven.”
Wolf said there is a plan in place to open houses of worship based on “medicine and math.”
“We want to always use not feelings or foolishness, but we want to use faith and facts to make our determination on when we open back up,” Wolf said. “When we do start coming back it should be like turning on a dimmer switch, not a light switch.”
Pastors say they will be on the lookout for guidelines from both the CDC and ADPH for what steps are the smartest and safest for reopening moving forward.
Organizers of religious gatherings are strongly encouraged to read and implement the Alabama Department of Public Health’s “Guidelines for Places of Worship,” available at this link.