“We don’t want our churches to become hotspots for this virus,” Cooper said after lawsuit filed Thursday.
Facing renewed pressure and a lawsuit from some religious leaders and conservatives to lift the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on worship services, Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday that doing so would put congregations at risk.
“We don’t want our churches to become hotspots for this virus,” Cooper told reporters.
Although polling has consistently shown robust support among conservatives, moderates and liberals for maintaining restrictions while the dangerous virus lingers, some faith leaders gathered for a protest Thursday in Raleigh advocating for NC churches to reopen, the Associated Press reported.
“Freedoms crushed eventually become no freedoms at all,” the Rev. Ron Baity, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, reportedly told about 500 protesters Thursday in Raleigh.
Cooper — who described himself as an “elder” in his church and a Sunday School teacher for 20 years — rebuffed that logic during Thursday’s media briefing later in the day, encouraging churches to continue outdoor or virtual services while NC proceeds through a multi-step plan for easing orders.
He said worshiping indoors “greatly increases” the risk of spreading coronavirus in a church. “We’ve seen tragic consequences when that’s the case,” Cooper said, alluding to deadly outbreaks in some congregated living centers, including nursing homes, in North Carolina. As of Thursday, 381 North Carolinians had died in such facilities, about 62% of the state’s total COVID-19 deaths.
Cooper added that he had not read the lawsuit, but characterized the state’s executive order as “carefully” written to preserve First Amendment liberties.
Cooper took the first step last Friday and is expected to consider another May 22, although the state continues to see an upward trend in cases. There were nearly 700 new cases confirmed from Wednesday to Thursday, but that increase coincides with continued ramping up of testing across the state.
In early April, NC had only the capacity for 2,000-3,000 tests per day, but that number has gradually increased to about 5,000 to 7,000 tests in a day.
Cooper administration officials are prepared to consider “Phase 2” of easing those orders, which would lift the state’s stay-at-home, allow some restaurants and bars to open, and clear North Carolina churches to reopen at reduced capacity.
But Cooper and NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen both indicated data would determine their course. NC is reviewing multiple metrics, including overall cases, hospitalizations, hospital capacity, tracing capabilities, and boosted testing.
On Thursday, Cohen — who lauded Cooper’s “commitment to lead with science and data” — said NC hasn’t seen a large drop-off in new cases because of the state’s success in limiting the virus’ dangerous spread.
“We didn’t experience a peak in North Carolina and that was no accident,” Cohen said. “We flattened the curve through our actions.”
Most of those trends appear to show improvement or leveling for the state, even if new cases are up. Also, DHHS reported Thursday that NC has available ventilators and hospital and ICU beds.
“We have the capacity to meet demand if (more) people become sick,” Cohen said.
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