Georgia pastors refuse to reopen churches despite permission to open: 'These are not numbers, these are souls'
Religious leaders in Georgia are urging members of their congregations to respect social distancing norms despite reopening permissions granted to non-essential businesses and places of worship across the state.
According to a report by The New York Times, several pastors in the city of Albany (south of Atlanta) are continuing to deliver virtual sermons, weeks after Gov. Brian Kemp allowed religious establishments to open up.
In fact, Pastor Orson Burton Jr. emphasized in his recent sermons the importance of remaining at home during the ongoing crisis. Burton, who was featured in the Times report, visits members of his congregation at their respective houses if they are wary about returning to work and resuming public life. According to the report, he pushes for shelter-in-place measures in a bid to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
In a conversation with the newspaper, Burton noted how the outbreak had led to more than 1,600 confirmed cases of the virus and at least 128 deaths in Dougherty County, of which Albany is the largest city
"I believe that if we mismanage this moment for the sake of reopening the economy and bringing in money, we can literally set our children, and our children's children, back for generations to come," he told the outlet. At least 80 percent of Dougherty County's population resides in Albany, according to figures provided by the US Census Bureau.
In early April, Albany was deemed a national coronavirus hotspot after the city reported one of the highest per-capita rates of positive cases in the country.
Burton, who lost his father-in-law to coronavirus, asserted that "these are not numbers, these are souls. These are lives being lost."
"We've been through so much. This is our time to make certain that the people are represented in rural South Georgia, but also to spread wisdom and information that will save a life," he added.
Several Georgia residents and government officials have criticized Kemp for what they believe was a premature order to reopen businesses across the state.
The backlash came after the governor announced during a press conference on April 20 that "fitness centers, bowling alleys, salons, barbershops, and body art studios were permitted to resume operations with additional safety protocols in place on April 24," according to Newsweek, while "theaters, private social clubs, and restaurant dine-in services reopened on April 27 under similar safety guidelines."
Kemp said on Tuesday, however, that bars, nightclubs, and performance venues will remain closed until the end of the month.
Meanwhile, places of worship in the state were given permission to resume in-person activity. Kemp noted in a statement issued shortly after his April 20 press briefing that religious establishments were also required to ascribe to mitigation guidelines.
"For places of worship, holding in-person services is allowed, but under Phase One guidelines, it must be done in accordance with strict social distancing protocols," he said. "I urge faith leaders to continue to help us in this effort and keep their congregations safe by heeding the advice of public health officials. Of course, online, call-in, or drive-in services remain good options for religious institutions."