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Coronavirus: Austin Faith Groups Adhere To Physical Distancing

  • May 22, 2020
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AUSTIN, TX — Despite a call by the governor for people to return to church even amid the growing danger of coronavirus, local communities of faith are adhering to guidelines promoting physical distancing to help blunt the spread of illness, officials said on Tuesday.

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that superseded the Austin-Travis County Stay Home-Work Safe Orders, effectively loosening local restrictions on gatherings for religious worship by reclassifying such activity as “essential.” With his order, Abbott tacitly encouraged church attendance in cases where religious services could not be conducted from home or through remote services.

Abbott’s order also expanded the scope of allowed commercial and private activities to include all construction work, even as other businesses — such as bars and restaurants — have temporarily closed their doors to deter the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

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Abbott encouraged church attendance amid the pandemic even while concurrently issuing dire warnings about the growing COVID-19 threat and issuing a shelter-in-place order to mitigate illness spread. In Austin alone, the number of COVID-19 cases have exceeded the 500 mark. To date in the capital city, there have been 502 positive cases of coronavirus and six deaths.

Statewide, the number of positive COVID-19 cases has grown to 8,262, according to the latest data available from Texas Department of State Health Services. To date, the agency reports 154 people have died from the illness.

The governor’s action prompted city and county officials to issue updated guidance to their original set of guidelines. All gatherings have been prohibited locally since March 24 to mitigate transmission of the COVID-19 virus in adherence to a “Stay Home-Work Safe” order tantamount to a shelter-in-place directive.

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However, communities of faith have largely adhered to advice to avert illness spread through physical distancing, according to the region’s health authority.

“While we must abide by the Governor’s Order reclassifying mass in-person religious gatherings as essential, we are also reassured and grateful to see a strong level of support among the Austin faith community for staying home and staying safe, especially this time of year,” Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director and health authority for Austin-Travis County, said in a prepared statement. “We continue to strongly recommend refraining from hosting or attending any gatherings that would only risk increasing the spread of this deadly disease inside of the congregation.”

Escott added that it was still important to support these organizations that also supported the community. Several religious organizations and groups of different faiths in the Austin community have announced online they have no plans to reinstate in-person religious gatherings in response to the state order.

Instead, Escott said, many are continuing to offer remote services via online livestreaming and even a prayer hotline — including a number of churches preparing for this weekend’s Easter Sunday activities. Meanwhile, Shalom Austin, the convener of Judaism in Central Texas, is encouraging participation in a “Virtual Passover” to mark one of the most sacred Jewish holidays, between April 8 and 16.

“As we all work together, faith-based organizations have an important role in slowing the spread of COVID-19, especially among high-risk populations,” said Deborah Duncan of Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 Faith-Based Task Force. “Austin faith communities have taken the lead in encouraging others to stay home and refraining from hosting any gatherings that would only risk increasing the spread of this deadly disease. We thank them for their continued support. Remember, your health is our community wealth. Please stay at home.”

The Catholic Diocese of Austin is among those adhering to physical distancing guidelines while assuring its flock of dispensations for not attending church in an effort to maintain physical distance from each other. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops explained the reasoning in an “Annunciation Message of Hope” to the faithful:

“Together with our brothers and sisters around the world, we are threatened by the effects of this disease, and we must be united in our efforts to mitigate its spread,” church officials wrote. “Our faith calls us all to follow Mary’s example of trust and reliance on the Lord, and, most importantly, her living faith in the Lord.”

The message continues: “Our actions to stay at home, to maintain safe physical distancing, and even to withdraw from public life during this time are a tangible witness of our reverence for life and our solidarity with the community. We do this, not because of servile fear, but because of Christian hope — we are sure of God’s steadfast love and the promise of our salvation. By sacrificing for others and isolating ourselves for the common good, we witness our Christian hope that God will see us through the present darkness.”

City officials provided other examples of actions taken by some faith groups to keep the community safe:

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