Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds held a press conference about COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa, on Friday, May, 1, 2020. (Photo Credit: Byron Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES, Iowa – On Friday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said that faith leaders she spoke to after lifting the restrictions on gatherings larger than ten people for religious and spiritual purposes want to approach reopening safely and responsibly. 

“With guidance from the Department of Public Health, and across all counties, churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship, may choose to reopen for religious services. In times like these, it’s our faith that gives us give so many of us the strength that we need. And I’ve been very impressed with how religious communities have remained connected even while they’re apart,” Reynolds said during a press conference at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa.

“So whether you’ve joined your own church… online over the last several weeks, or livestream services from across the globe, there’s been no shortage of opportunities together virtually in prayer. Still, many Iowans are eager to return to church. And over the last week, I’ve heard from a number of religious leaders across the state. And while they’re grateful for the opportunity to come back together with their members, they’re also aware of the importance to do so in a safe and responsible way,” she added.

Reynolds noted that many churches are taking time to assess and adapt their space to accommodate social distancing before reopening.

“I appreciate the thoughtful approach of these decisions, and also the thoughtful approach of those who choose to hold services this weekend and anticipate anticipation of returning to church, whether it’s this week or in the coming weeks,” she said.

Caffeinated Thoughts in an informal survey of primarily evangelical churches found that 70.4 percent of respondents said they did not plan to hold in-person services this weekend while 29.6 percent said they would. Also, 59.3 percent of respondents said their church was located within the 22 counties where there is still increasing viral activity, and 40.7 percent were located in the 77 counties where certain businesses are allowed to open.

Caffeinated Thoughts asked churches who plan to meet how they plan to encourage social distancing. 

“If you want to share a pew, you have to arrive together, facemasks if you want them, hand sanitizer available, one pew gap between each group, one pew at a time for communion, self-serve communion,” one respondent said.

“No passing the offering plate, prepackaged communion, no contact, face mask encouraged, hand sanitizer available, no nursery or children’s classes, distancing,” another said.

“Spaced seating, no social time/refreshments, ‘no-touch’ communion, dismissing rows in order, saving back rows for more vulnerable, extra cleaning afterward,” one church reported. 

Another pastor told Caffeinated Thoughts that they will offer in-person services for their Wednesday evening services implementing social distancing, but stay online for their Sunday services.

Many churches are waiting until later in the month, implementing social distancing, and will limit attendance. Others still plan to continue with online worship for now or drive-in church services in the church parking lots. Also, all Catholic churches across the state plan to continue offering Mass online for the time being. 

Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), went over guidance provided by the department and said they received questions related to what constitutes a religious service. 

“Weddings and funerals are considered every worship or religious service. But funeral visitations and wedding receptions are not visitations, and receptions must continue to be limited to 10 people or fewer,” she said. ” Iowans at high risk for more severe illness should continue to avoid these sorts of gatherings.”

“We know this is a difficult time, and Iowans need to continue to be responsible and taking care of their own health as well as protecting the health of our communities. If you do too choose to attend a worship service this weekend, please continue to do all of the things that public health has been asking of Iowans. Continue to practice social distancing. Consider the use of cloth face coverings if you will be in situations where social distancing is not possible. Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer regularly. And most importantly, stay home if you are not feeling well or if you have been diagnosed or (are) in close contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19,” Reisetter added.

Greg Baker, Executive Vice President with The FAMiLY Leader, shared an update about how churches in their network are approaching the reopening.

He first thanked Reynolds for taking First Amendment rights seriously.

“Governor, I want to thank you for recognizing the church’s economy with First Amendment rights. And I want you to know governor we did not take those rights lightly. We also want to encourage Iowans that as well, freedom comes with great responsibility,” Baker said.

“We look at churches across the state, the attitude we’re seeing is the attitude of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ here as ambassadors. And Jesus came to not be served, but to serve and give us life as a ransom for many. And that is exactly the heart we are seeing,” he said.

Baker noted that most churches, particularly those in the 22 counties with increasing viral activity, will continue to meet online. He said churches like Lutheran Church of Hope that decided to continue worshipping online are also considering how best to make use of all of their square footage, and move beyond using just the auditorium. Others, he added, will continue drive-in services. 

He shared that churches are serving the community amid the COVID-19 crisis. Churches like New Hope Christian Church and Faith Assembly of God in Marshalltown are working to produce face masks. A network of 58 churches such as Westchester Evangelical Free Church and Cottage Grove Church in Des Moines work with the Food Bank of Iowa and DMARCC as food distribution centers. Baker recognized Cedar Rapids First Assembly of God, who partnered with Convoy of Hope, to distribute over 35,000 lbs of food. He added 21 churches in the state offered to host blood drives when that need arose. 

Baker added that North Point Church in Johnston and Walnut Creek Church in Windsor Heights have volunteered to help with meal deliveries to senior citizens so that many of the regular volunteers, who are senior citizens themselves, can stay home. 

“This is just a small sampling of what many churches are doing across the state of Iowa. And what we are hearing and what we encourage is churches will not only continue to operate responsibly, and their communities will also continue to play the love of Christ by coming alongside their neighbors,” he added.

Reopening begins on a day where IDPH reports the highest daily number of positive cases since the COVID-19 public health emergency began. 

They reported 740 new cases for a total of 7,885 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Reynolds said that 85 percent of the cases are in the 22 counties where restrictions are still in place, and 516 of the new cases are in Black Hawk, Dallas, Polk, and Woodbury counties.

“I want Iowans to know that because of the large number of tests we’ve conducted recently, we do anticipate the overall numbers that will be reported this weekend. They may be higher than usual, as we’ve seen in today’s numbers. So please keep in mind that a high volume of tests conducted this week were among essential workers in communities or facilities where virus activity is high,” she explained.

Reynolds noted labs conducted 2186 negative tests for a total of 37,708 negative tests. A total of 45,593 Iowans have been tested, representing one in every 69 Iowans tested for COVID-19. 

IDPH reported that eight additional Iowans have passed away due to COVID-19 for a total of 170. Reynolds noted that deaths continue to be among older Iowans and those with underlying health conditions. 

Also, 2899 Iowans have recovered for a recovery rate of 37 percent among confirmed cases. 

According to the Regional Medical Coordination Centers, 345 Iowans are hospitalized with COVID-19, with 44 admitted in the previous 24 hours, 121 in ICU, and 91 on ventilators. There are 3,927 inpatient beds, 543 ICU beds, and 653 ventilators available statewide. 

Listen to the full press conference below:

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