COVID on the rise again: Which states now protect churches from closure?

closed dutch church A Dutch church closed because of the global Coronavirus pandemic. | Credit: Jasper Suijten/Shutterstock

After hitting their lowest recorded levels since the start of the pandemic in early summer, COVID-19 cases have begun to increase again, raising the specter of new mask mandates and recalling the early days of the pandemic, when fears of COVID outbreaks led much of society to shutter — including, controversially, many churches around the country.

Yet legal protections afforded to churches have evolved considerably since the start of the pandemic. Many states have passed explicit protections for houses of worship, ensuring either that they will not be forced to shutter again amid a future health emergency or that they will not be treated more harshly than other “essential services” allowed to remain open.

CNA compiled data on which states now protect houses of worship as “essential” and which do not. Peruse the map below and see where your state falls.

Every U.S. diocese curtailed the public celebration of Mass in 2020 at the outset of the pandemic, many in response to state or local laws, which varied widely in their strictness toward religious services.

Data from earlier this year show that in-person Mass attendance among Catholics has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, and only about 4 in 10 U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass in person as often as they did before the pandemic. A quarter of all Catholics say they now attend less often.

There is now legal precedent at the federal level suggesting that states may never shut down worship entirely again and can limit indoor capacity at houses of worship to, at most, 25% of normal. 

The Supreme Court ruled in late November 2020 that New York state restrictions, which included restrictions on the number of attendees at worship services, during the coronavirus pandemic constituted a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free religious exercise.

Data from the New York Times show that daily COVID hospitalizations among those 70 and older have doubled from roughly 2,000 per day across the U.S. in July to 4,300 a day in mid-September of this year. The number of weekly deaths attributed to COVID remains at an all-time low despite a very slight uptick in recent weeks. 

The CDC issued new recommendations Sept. 12 advising everyone 6 months and older to get an updated COVID-19 vaccine to protect against “the potentially serious outcomes of COVID-19 illness this fall and winter.”

Daniel Payne contributed to this report.

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