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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Cooper Pushes Back On Criticism Over Church Service Restrictions

Gov. Roy Cooper shows his face mask at a press briefing for North Carolina's Phase 1 re-opening, May 8, 2020
NC Department of Public Safety
Gov. Roy Cooper shows his face mask at a press briefing for North Carolina's Phase 1 re-opening, May 8, 2020

Gov. Roy Cooper pushed back on criticism Tuesday about North Carolina's continued restrictions on gatherings for church and other worship services, saying it is necessary to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

North Carolina’s Phase 1 of reopening from the coronavirus shutdown prohibits any gatherings of more than 10 people unless they are outside. Critics point out that businesses are allowed to be open, and retail stores can operate at 50% of their regular occupancy if they adhere to social distancing and cleaning guidelines.

At a press briefing Tuesday, Cooper said he understood some people were frustrated, but he pushed back on the comparison between retail locations and churches. 

"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," Cooper said. 

North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen echoed Cooper, saying indoor services present a higher risk of infection, based on health experts' understanding of how the virus spreads.

"One, when you’re indoors, you don’t have the same air circulation. You have more surfaces that you touch, door knobs, pews, et cetera," Cohen said. "And when you’re sitting down, that contact -- it is more than 10 minutes within six feet -- that is when the virus is most transmitted.”

A group of 18 North Carolina senators, led by Sen. Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston), wrote the governor on May 8, the same day as Phase 1 of reopening, calling the restrictions unconstitutional. The senators asked for clarity on two sections of Executive Order 138, which began Phase 1 of reopening -- in particular the section that states mass gatherings of more than 10 people “shall take place outdoors unless impossible.” The senators asked what circumstances would be deemed "impossible," and therefore allow indoor services.

The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association also released a statement on Friday asking Cooper to amend the executive order to allow for indoor services. On Tuesday afternoon, the association began circulating guidance from the governor’s office that says the restriction of 10 or fewer people for indoors services does not apply if there are no options for outdoor services or other accommodations, or if religious beliefs dictate the religious service must be held indoors or that more than 10 people must attend.

Before Cooper's Tuesday press briefing, senators Harrington and Carl Ford (R-Rowan) released a statement calling the executive order "absurd" for giving different rules to businesses and churches, and for allowing indoor services for "an unspecified religion with established rules requiring indoor meetings."

Phase 2 of the planned reopening would allow for services at a reduced capacity. The earliest that phase could begin is May 22, two weeks after the beginning of Phase 1. However, Cooper and his staff have said they would look at key health trends for the state's coronavirus cases before moving forward with Phase 2 on that date.

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Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.