WASHINGTON — Less than a month after President Trump urged churches to reopen, West Virginia has reported a significant number of coronavirus outbreaks linked to houses of worship. According to the state’s public health office, a total of five churches have seen outbreaks.

Those churches are scattered across the rugged, mountainous state. The affected churches are in Jefferson County on the border with Maryland; Boone County, in the state’s southwestern coalfields, not far from the Kentucky border; Hampshire County, also near the Maryland border; and Marshall County, in a narrow swath of the state squeezed between Ohio and Pennsylvania known as the Northern Panhandle.

The state’s Department of Health and Human Resources announced the five-church outbreak in a Saturday press release about a house of worship in Greenbrier County, where it said “at least 17 cases have been identified.” It did not name the Greenbrier church, or the churches in the other four counties, to “protect the possibility of identifying individuals.”

On Monday, health officials said that there had been eight church-related cases in Hampshire County, seven in Boone County and five each in Jefferson and Marshall counties. Speaking at a press conference on Monday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice revealed that the outbreak in Greenbrier County was at Graystone Baptist Church in Lewisburg. And he said that the number of cases there had risen to 28. 

State health officials told Yahoo News that the infected churchgoers had themselves infected an additional 26 people, so that the total number of people who had contracted the coronavirus either directly or indirectly because of the worship services was now 79. “DHHR is monitoring any increase in COVID-19 cases with coordination from the local health department,” said Allison Adler, director of communications for the Department of Health and Human Resources. She said that the West Virginia National Guard was assisting in the response, including by helping clean the five churches. 

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Graystone Baptist Church in Lewisburg, W.Va. (via Facebook)

Describing the coronavirus as a “cannonball killer,” Justice suggested that officials at the church did not take sufficient measures to protect parishioners.

“Maybe we didn’t use the level of caution there,” Justice said. “Maybe we didn’t social distance properly, or properly wear masks.” He later clarified that this was only “hearsay.”

Graystone Baptist posted a statement on Facebook on Saturday afternoon, around the same time that state health officials sent out the notice about the outbreaks in the state. “We greatly encouraged anyone who was feeling ill to remain home. Attending church was on a voluntary basis. We exemplified social distancing within the church walls,” the statement said.

“We made aware and made use of hand sanitizing stations and Antibacterial sprays,” the statement continued. “We do not understand the source of the outbreak. To the best of our ability we followed the guidelines that were given to us.”

Trump insisted in late May that churches reopen, threatening governors who continued to impose restrictions on houses of worship. The pronouncement, which appeared to lack legal grounds because such decisions reside with governors, covered synagogues, mosques and other congregations. But some believe the order was meant to specifically address weakening political support for Trump among evangelical Christians, whose votes Trump needs in the November election. 

Writing in the Washington Post, two evangelical leaders called the president’s push to reopen churches “irresponsible and potentially destructive.”

In another move that appeared targeted at conservative Christian voters, Trump earlier this month had the U.S. Park Police disperse peaceful protesters gathered in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, so that he could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church and pose holding a Bible there. That highly controversial incident backfired when some religious leaders condemned the use of force for the sake of a photo shoot.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice. (Al Drago/Reuters)

Gov. Justice is a billionaire, the only one in the entire state. He owns the Greenbrier, a historic luxury resort in Greenbrier County that is about 10 miles from Lewisburg. He described Graystone Baptist as “right in my backdoor.” Justice was elected as a Democrat in 2016 but announced that he was becoming a Republican some months later. He and President Trump have been close allies ever since.  

“A lot of the attendance at our churches are those that are elderly and at higher risk, so we are cautioning everyone to strictly follow our guidelines,” Justice was quoted as saying in the health department’s press release, which went out on Saturday afternoon. “As I have said many times, we will have stormy seas before we get a vaccine, so it is imperative that we strictly follow the guidelines or the seas will only get rougher.”

Justice advised church attendees to “use every other pew, maintain social distancing, and please wear masks.” State health authorities announced that there would be additional coronavirus testing sites on Sunday and Monday in Lewisburg, the county seat.

The state’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, said on Monday that “singing is a particular challenge when it comes to the spread” of the coronavirus. Singing is integral to religious gatherings in nearly all cultures and faiths. On March 3 and 10, a coronavirus superspreader infected 52 people at choir practices in Skagit County, Washington state. Two of those people died.

Some places of worship in West Virginia chose not to reopen even once they were permitted to do so. Rabbi Joe Blair of Temple Israel in the state capital of Charleston said that while there was a “push” from some of the synagogue’s board members to reopen, he worried about elderly congregants and would resume in-person worship only “when it is safe and prudent to do so.” Blair told Yahoo News that prospects were “extremely low” for Temple Israel to reopen by the time the two holiest Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, take place in late September.

Bruce Lane, a pastor at the Chestnut Creek megachurch in Morgantown, where the flagship state university is based, said that his congregation was taking a similar approach. “We’ve decided to be a little cautious right now,” Lane told Yahoo News. He expects in-person church services to resume in early August.

John King, executive pastor of the Bible Center Church in Charleston, told Yahoo News that he had not “seen a rise in COVID cases in our congregation.” King said, “One of our steps has been to delay resuming our in person weekend gatherings until the end of June. We presently do not have groups gathering in our building other than staff.”

The news about church-based outbreaks comes as many Americans continue to gather at large demonstrations to protest police brutality. Speaking to Yahoo News last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force, said he was “concerned” the protests could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases. 

Meanwhile, in many states, restaurants, bars and other establishments have begun to reopen after months of lockdown. Public health officials worry that those activities, like religious services, could contribute to an increase in coronavirus infections.

COVID-19, the lower respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, has infected 2.1 million Americans, killing nearly 116,000. Reports of “quarantine fatigue” have been widespread, and people have sometimes flouted lockdown restrictions in states where such measures remain in place. That worries public health officials, who have pointed to drastic rises in coronavirus infection rates in states like Texas and Florida, which were among the slowest to close and the quickest to reopen.

A reopened beach on Friday in Miami Beach, Fla. (MediaPunch/IPX via AP)

West Virginia has so far been relatively mildly affected by the coronavirus, which has killed 88 people there. It was the last state to record a coronavirus case, though it is unclear whether that was because the pathogen was slow to arrive there or because the state’s public health authorities were slow to have diagnostic testing resources. The state has an older population that could prove particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

No other state appears to have reported as many outbreaks related to religious gatherings as West Virginia, though that could be because diagnostic testing and reporting practices vary widely across the nation. Early in the pandemic, coronavirus clusters were reported in communities of religious Jews in and around New York City. And in March, a church in rural Arkansas saw 35 of 92 attendees at a religious service test positive for the coronavirus, making for a troublingly high 38 percent infection rate from a single event.

In his remarks on Monday, Justice said that “all of our churches should take heed.” He added that “losing lives” by neglecting to institute proper precautionary measures was “not worth it.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: via Facebook, Getty Images

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