Conversations about guidance for churches to reopen during the pandemic have taken place for weeks. On April 28 and 29, officials at the White House and U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) talked with four Catholic bishops who had decided to resume public Masses in their respective dioceses. The conversation focused on the reopening of churches and what federal guidance on that might look like.
The CDC reportedly drafted guidance for reopening businesses, churches, and other places of public accommodation earlier in May, but on May 7, AP reported that the Trump administration had shelved a 17-page CDC report that included an "Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith."
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the White House pushed against the CDC issuing guidance for churches, with the concern that it did not want to unnecessarily limit the freedom of churches.
The CDC, meanwhile, has published a report this week warning that "COVID 19 spreads easily in group gatherings" and citing the case of a rural Arkansas church where 35 of 92 attendees of services between March 6 and 11 ended up testing positive for COVID-19, with three deaths.
On Thursday, however, Trump spoke several other times of his desire to see churches open again soon.
"I saw a scene today where people are trying to break into a church to go into the church -- not to break in and steal something, to break in -- they want to be in their church," Trump said on Thursday afternoon.
"I said, 'You better put it out,'" he added, referring to the CDC guidance. "And they [the CDC] are doing it and they're going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We got to get our churches open."
There have been more than 1.5 million cases of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) in the U.S., and more than 93,000 deaths, according to the CDC.
As the virus spread in March, all U.S. Catholic dioceses curtailed public Masses to prevent the spread of the disease. However, beginning in mid-April, dioceses have begun resuming the offering of public Masses.
In Minnesota, the state's Catholic bishops decided on Wednesday to resume public Masses on Pentecost weekend, in defiance of a state order. As the order had allowed some businesses to begin reopening, but not churches, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis said on Thursday that Catholics "really depend on the Eucharist to get through the challenges of their lives" in defense of the decision to reopen.
Masses will be offered in churches at no more than 33% capacity, the bishops said, and with safety precautions.
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Trump hosted a conference call with administration officials and 1,600 "pastors and faith leaders," the White House said on Thursday. The participants included Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church.
According to the White House readout of the meeting, Trump said the right of church congregations to hold services was part of America's "transition to greatness."
Speaking with reporters before he boarded the Marine One helicopter on Thursday afternoon, the president said that "One of the other things I want to do is get the churches open."
"The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors," he said. "I want to get our churches open. And we're going to take a very strong position on that very soon."
When a reporter asked if he wanted mosques to reopen as well, Trump said that he did.
In the listening session with African-American leaders in the afternoon, Trump repeated his desire to have churches reopened swiftly.