Fact Check: Churches Can Be 'Hotspots' For Coronavirus
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper eased restrictions last month to allow most businesses to reopen, but churches could only hold indoor gatherings of at most 10 people. This was how he explained his reasoning: “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.”
A group of churches sued, and a federal judge sided with them, writing that restrictions applied to one group and not another burden religious freedom. WRAL’s Paul Specht joins us to assess the governor’s claim.
Lisa Worf: Good morning, Paul. It sounds like you're outside this morning.
Paul Specht: I am working from home. My wife has kicked me out of the home office so she can work, and so here I am in our backyard.
Worf: So, are there any studies out there about how contagious coronavirus is in worship settings?
Specht: This fact check was difficult because there aren't many studies of worship services in particular as compared to other environments like retail stores or grocery stores, so we can't make a direct comparison and make a blanket statement about one being more dangerous than the other. But we can compare the activities that typically happen in those environments, which is what Gov. Cooper did.
Worf: And I mean, there are those traditional practices like singing, like communion, right, that would seem to make it more dangerous if you were doing those.
Specht: Right. And those things are generally agreed upon by experts to be more dangerous. You know, singing: You project respiratory droplets. Sharing bulletins, sharing communion: You're essentially sharing germs. But that's not really what was at issue here. You know, critics of Gov. Cooper said, "Give us the opportunity to worship safely, to practice social distancing and to take other measures." And so the issue we looked at was whether or not sitting in one place around other people indoors for a long period of time was more dangerous than, say, walking around the store just passing someone in an aisle. Experts do say that you're less likely to spread or to be in touch with someone else's germs if you're just passing by them, if it's a brief interaction as opposed to sitting around a bunch of people for a long time even if it's six feet apart.
Worf: And the ability to walk away does sound like it may help in some scenarios.
Specht: That's right, and I'm glad you brought that up because that was another key thing they said. You know, if you're sitting in church and the worship service is ongoing and someone sits near you or coughs near you there's less of an opportunity to get up and just move somewhere else. Then there might be in a Target where if you see someone near you coughing or just coming toward you, there's always that chance to walk away.
Worf: So how did you rate Cooper's claim, then?
Specht: There is enough there to show that moving around is not as dangerous as sitting in one place for a long period of time, and the CDC has even posted reports on multiple coronavirus outbreaks caused by church services. And again, I know critics will say this: Those were probably before a lot of information was out about coronavirus, it was early in the pandemic, and in some cases that's true. But still, churches have been noted hotspots for coronavirus. So we rated Cooper's claim mostly true.
Worf: So what kind of guidelines do we have as far as conducting worship services that are as safe as they can be?
Specht: The CDC has put out some recommendations. They have not issued guidance as to whether church services should be held at all. They've left that up to the faith community to decide for themselves. But they do say to follow guidance of local governments, they say to social distance as much as possible. They say to hold services outdoors if possible and they strongly discourage the sharing of communion elements or other pamphlets or just materials at all.
Worf: Let's now turn to something that Darren Jackson said last month. He's the Democratic leader in the state House. He said two-thirds of Americans disapprove of Donald Trump not wearing a face mask in public and the vast majority supports elected officials being required to wear masks in government buildings. Is there any truth to that?
Specht: Yes, there is. Darren Jackson is the minority leader in the North Carolina State House, and he's the one who tweeted this claim. And he sent us a link to one poll: The poll said that more than 66% of people did not like that Trump was not setting a good example by wearing a mask. But that's just one poll. And so we went looking for more and we found four more polls. They just asked people, should the president wear a mask in public? And the results ranged between about 60% and as high as 72%, and so we figured that's right around the two-thirds stat that the minority leader tweeted.
Worf: So how did you rate Jackson's statement?
Specht: In this case we only have polls to go on, but everything that we saw showed overall support for Americans wanting the president to wear a face mask. Of course, that was a little lower for people who identified themselves as Republicans. It hovered around 50% or a little less, but overall, there was consistently between the 60% and 70% margins, so we rated this claim true.
These fact checks are a collaboration between WRAL and PolitiFact. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.