ITTLE ROCK (KATV) — Arkansas churches were given new COVID-19 guidelines by the governor on Tuesday as cases continue to surge across the state.
Pulaski County had the highest number of cases associated with church services, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Around 250 to 300 people who were confirmed positive for COVID-19 had attended a church service in Pulaski County from the beginning of May to the beginning of October.
Craighead, Pope, Benton and Washington Counties all reported over 150 cases from people who had attended a worship service.
The new guidelines say masks are to be worn at all times by all congregants, except those who are medically exempt, especially while singing. Congregants must also stay 6 feet apart, both indoors and outdoors.
“The number of cases we’ve seen across Arkansas that come from places of worship has increased,” Hutchinson said at a news conference. “When you have a congregation of people, there is a risk associated with it the vast majority of places of worship are taking precautions but there is that risk.”
Health officials said on Tuesday that “unmasked congregational singing” is the primary source of outbreaks at churches, even while members are socially distanced.
“Our churches and faith organizations, like all organizations in society, are tired and fatigued and now we are looking at months and months into this possibility and no end in sight,” Minister Sonny Tucker said. “It’s not just a question of do I want to wear a mask or not but in the practice of charity, in the practice of justice we need to be conscious of other people, other people who might be more vulnerable than we are.”
The St. James United Methodist Church didn’t allow in-person services until September, months after the governor allowed them.
“I do know just anecdotally of some churches that are meeting and not requiring a mask,” Pastor Carness Vaughn said.
He said their church services require members to pre-register in case contact tracing is needed. He said that everyone is required to wear a mask and social distance, even those singing. He said that volunteers will direct members to and from their seats so that there is no congregating in the aisles.
“I don’t want to judge anybody and everyone has their own situation and their own space. I just know that for us at St. James it’s super important to keep one another safe,” Vaughn said about other churches that are not following the guidelines.
He said there is a benefit of worshipping in-person that members don’t get while worshipping online.
In June, a COVID-19 outbreak was traced back to one of the largest churches in central Arkansas, North Little Rock’s First Pentecostal Church.
Months later, in the midst of the third-wave of COVID-19 cases around the globe, hundreds at the church have attended services without masks or social distancing. At a service on Sunday, which was streamed on YouTube, hordes of people crowded toward the stage, reaching for each other’s hands. At one point, a speaker asked visitors to reach over and touch others while they prayed. No masks could be seen in the video.
It was not known if the church is among those with recent infections. A church spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.
The spokesperson said in June that they were taking “every precaution to keep people safe,” like industrial-grade sanitizing, limiting capacity and offering online services for those who are sick.