RALEIGH, N.C. (WECT) - North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper responded to requests from the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association and others asking him to consider allowing indoor worship services across the state during phase one of the state’s re-opening plan.
Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order 138, which took effect on Friday, May 8 at 5:00 p.m., prohibits mass gatherings of more than ten persons at the same time in a single space ‘such as an auditorium, stadium, arena, conference room, meeting hall, or any other confined indoor or outdoor space’. Mass gatherings for worship, however, are not included. It goes on to specify any gatherings of more than ten people that are allowed shall take place outdoors “unless impossible”. The order specifies retail businesses are allowed to operate if they limit customer occupancy to not more than fifty percent of fire capacity, or limit to twelve customers for every one thousand square feet of total square footage.
The NCSA’s Executive Committee unanimously approved a resolution last Friday, May 8, requesting Gov. Cooper amend his most recent executive order. The resolution says the executive order’s restrictions put on gatherings for worship are more restrictive than those placed on retail businesses. The resolution also says “many citizens have told sheriffs that they do not understand nor agree with the Governor’s limits on worship services than the Governor’s limits on businesses and other allowable activities, and the wording of these more restrictive limitations created interpretation and enforcement issues for law enforcement”.
The NCSA order goes on to respectfully request “that Governor Roy A. Cooper amend Executive Order No. 138 to provide that indoor worship services are not prohibited by Executive Order No. 138 if they adhere to similar requirements that allow for the operation of retail businesses”.
“It’s something we’ve had to do over the past few weeks in order to protect each other, in order to care about your neighbor, because we know that inside, it is much more likely that you’re going to transmit this virus, particularly when you’re sitting or standing in one place for a long period of time,” Gov. Cooper said during his news conference Tuesday afternoon. “This is across the board, and some people are trying to compare this to retail. There is a big difference. With retail, people are moving around and you don’t have as much a chance to spread the virus, a significantly greater chance are sitting or standing indoors and close together.”
“At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, imposing restrictions on various establishments was likely the right course of action," Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram, the president of the NCSA, said in an email statement. "However, we now know through health officials how to best avoid exposure to and the spread of the virus by social distancing, avoiding anyone who is sick and proper hand washing and sanitizing. The omission of places of worship in Governor Cooper’s Executive Order No. 138 was concerning to many of our citizens and therefore concerning to the NC Sheriffs. Restrictions and recommended guidelines that apply to persons who gather to worship should be no more stringent than those that apply to businesses that are allowed to remain open. Earlier today, Governor Cooper’s office clarified if it is not possible for a place of worship to hold their services outside or through other accommodations such as online, the ten-person limit does not apply. Places of worship can take steps to minimize the risk of exposure to and spread of COVID-19 by following the guidelines established by health officials. In the same way that maintaining physical and mental health is extremely important during these times of uncertainty, for many, so is maintaining spiritual health.”
“What we’re hoping is that ministers and church leaders will put the health of their congregations at the head of their thinking here, in consideration of each other, realizing it is still dangerous to hold indoor services when more than ten people are there and those people are closer together,” Gov. Cooper added Tuesday. “We want to make sure that the people across this state are protected.”
According to Eddie Caldwell, the association’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, eleven of the twelve members of the NCSA’s Executive Committee voted for the resolution last Friday, May 8. Caldwell also said the twelfth member could not take part in the actual vote but had told other committee members he supported the resolution. Sheriff Ingram, as NCSA President, signed the resolution along with Sheriff Ed McMahon, the NCSA Second Vice-President, and ten other sheriffs.