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Churchgoers Are Defying Social Distancing Guidelines

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  • Despite orders against large social gatherings, some churches in places like Florida, Louisiana, and Ohio have continued to host mass services for hundreds of worshipers.
  • One Florida church leader said his members were practicing “social distancing, or whatever,” despite live video of them clearly not.
  • He also told churchgoers that they were more likely to contract the virus elsewhere, not in church, and has peddled misinformation about the virus.
  • Meanwhile, a Louisiana preacher has said the coronavirus is “not a concern” and is “politically motivated.”

17% of Churchgoers Still Attend, Poll Says 

While schools and businesses all over the world have closed their doors to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, many churchgoers have continued to attend services in person. 

Some houses of worship, from the Vatican to storefront mosques, have switched to virtual gatherings, but according to a Buzzfeed poll conducted last week by three political scientists, 22% of respondents said they had been “encouraged” to attend in-person worship “because of the virus.” The study also found that 17% of respondents were actually still going. 

The survey polled 1,038 people from all over the country, who said they attend a house of worship “more often than never.” It’s not exactly known if the 17% of people still attending services are meeting in smaller worship settings that follow the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations, but based on some recent reports, it’s clear that there are still hundreds of worshipers ignoring social distancing guidelines. 

Last week, nearly three dozen people who attended a church event at First Assemblies of God Church in Greers Ferry, Arkansas, tested positive for COVID-19. Of the 34 who tested positive, 31 are either church staff or members of the church.

On Friday, a church in Chicago said 43 people reported symptoms related to the virus after a church service on March 15. At least 10 of those people thave tested positive for the virus so far.  

Hundreds Gather in Louisiana 

While President Donald Trump has recommended against gatherings of more than 10 people, many states have laid out their own specific social distancing rules. Still, some are choosing to deliberately defy them. 

Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana is one preacher in particular who has made headlines for hosting mass gatherings. On March 17, he went against Gov. Jon Bel Edwards’ order that banned groups larger than 50 from gathering at one time, including churches. 

Spell hosted a Tuesday service for around 300 people, arguing at the time that the virus was “not a concern,” and adding that he believes it is “politically motivated.”  

“People are still going to work, still going to the mall. I encountered more people in Target today then I did during my service last night,” he later told CNN. “It’s persecution of the faith for me not to have my worship service and yet I am allowed to go out in public and shop. Why is there one standard for commerce and another for religion?”

He also boasted about gathering a larger crowd of nearly 1,200 the Sunday before, adding that he had 27 busses picking people up.  His services have reportedly continued as normal, with Spell even hosting baptisms and laying hands to heal the sick.

Once the media began reporting on Spell’s services, he said several church members were suspended from work after employers feared they would spread the virus. Yet still, this past Sunday over 550 people packed themselves inside the church.

According to the Associated Press, assistant ministers and other churchgoers stood outside the front doors and in the parking lot telling reporters to leave. They said cameras would not be allowed on the property and that they had been told not to talk to the media. 

Spell later appeared and made a brief comment in the parking lot, saying they have a right to assemble. He also said the church is not forcing anyone to attend, is not breaking any laws, and will continue to hold services.

Spell has faced some backlash from people in the community, with some even signing a petition calling for him to be arrested and charged with reckless endangerment.

However, Spell isn’t the only one in Louisiana hosting church-related gatherings. On Saturday, police in New Orleans broke up a funeral repast of about 100 people. Police issued a warrant for a 28-year-old man who refused to shut it down after he was asked. The leader of the band that was playing during the gathering was also issued a summons for his participation. 

“People who violate the ban are being selfish and “grossly irresponsible,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said Sunday afternoon in New Orleans. They “take the time and attention of first responders and make it much more likely that this disease will continue to spread,” he said

Florida and Ohio

In Florida, The River at Tampa Bay Church held a Sunday service live stream, which showed worshipers gathered close together. Still, Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne said attendees were practicing “social distancing, or whatever.” 

“We are not a nonessential service,” Howard-Browne said during the service. “You’re probably going to get infected at some other place, not here.”

He also condemned scientific reports about the virus and peddled the debunked idea that this pandemic was of less concern than the flu. 

The church said in a statement on its web site that it felt it was important to remain open for people in need of comfort, saying it is sanitizing and cleaning all surfaces.

“In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty. We expect hospitals to have their doors open 24/7 to receive and treat patients. We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty,” the church said in the statement.

Meanwhile, Solid Rock Church in Lebanon, Ohio also held services Sunday in defiance of a letter from the local health department urging it not to meet after community complaints, according to a local news report. The church, in a statement, cited its First Amendment right to religious assembly.

Religious gatherings were explicitly exempted by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s order against gatherings of more than 10 people. However, DeWine also tweeted a plea to religious leaders last week saying, “We did not order religious organizations to close, but my message to EVERYONE is that this is serious. When you are coming together, whether in a church or wherever – this is dangerous.”

Global Issue 

But Americans aren’t the only ones continuing to attend in-person worship services. Sunday services were held at some of Russia’s largest religious sites after Orthodox church leaders said they were an expression of religious freedom.

According to the Guardian, dozens of parishioners, many of them elderly, crowded into Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg to receive communion. However, later in the day, the church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, called on people to refrain from visiting churches. 

In Romania and Georgia, two countries with strongly Orthodox Christian populations, some priests have insisted on continuing to use a shared spoon for the communion ritual. 

Last Sunday, the day after Romania had been put into a strict lockdown, footage emerged from the city of Cluj of priests using a shared spoon.  In Georgia, while the church has told people not to spend long periods of time in churches and not to come if sick, it has rejected calls to abandon the reusing of spoons. Instead, it claimed that as communion is a holy ceremony it is not possible to get ill during it.

See what others are saying: (Bloomberg) (AP News) (Fox News

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9 COVID-19 Cases Reported at the Georgia High School Under Fire for Crowded Halls

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  • One week after a photo of a crowded hallway at North Paulding High School in Georgia went viral, six students and three staff members there have tested positive for the coronavirus. 
  • The school is closed through at least Tuesday for a deep cleaning. More results are expected to come back from other students and faculty. 
  • This comes as the school lifted the suspensions of two students who shared the now-viral images of the crowded hall.
  • The issue of school re-openings has become a subject of national debate, as has the risk children pose when it comes to getting and spreading the virus. A recent report said that 97,000 children tested positive in the last two weeks of July, which is a 40% increase in child cases. 

Cases Confirmed at North Paulding

Six students and three staff members at North Paulding High School have tested positive for the coronavirus one week after viral photos showed students crowding in the hallways, many without face masks. 

Superintendent Brian Otott wrote a letter to parents at the school confirming that there would be no in-person learning on Monday or Tuesday as the school waits for more test results to come back and for the building to undergo a deep clean. Families will learn whether or not there are plans to resume in-person instruction on Tuesday night. 

“Please know that according to guidelines established by the school district, any students and staff who are confirmed cases of COVID-19, along with any identified close contacts, must quarantine for at least 14 days and cannot return to school until they have completed all the requirements of the DPH’s guidance for persons infected with COVID-19,” Otott continued in the letter. Right now, it is unclear exactly how many people will be required to do the 14-day quarantine. 

Angie Franks, the aunt of two students who tested positive at the school, told the Atlanta Constitution-Journal her nephews did not grasp the gravity of the virus and were not encouraged to wear masks. Paulding County leaders have previously stated they did not believe in enforcing a mask mandate. 

“They sat in class all day long with no masks and not social distancing,” Franks said. “And I have no idea how many kids they came into contact with.”

Student Suspensions Lifted

The viral photo that showed students jammed in a hallway spread across the internet like wildfire. It resulted in the school announcing that anyone who shared photos or criticisms of the school could face disciplinary action. On Thursday, two students who initially shared the photos ended up being suspended, though those suspensions were eventually lifted.

“I took [the picture] out of mostly concern and nervousness after seeing the first days of school,” Hannah Watters, one of the suspended students, told CNN

“I’d like to say this is some good and necessary trouble, so I don’t regret posting this because it needed to be said,” she added. 

Her suspension, which was set for five days, ended Friday when the school called to tell her it was reversed and that her record would not reflect it. 

The Paulding County Board of Education tweeted a statement confirming that the other student’s suspension had been lifted as well. 

U.S. COVID-19 Cases in Children

This comes as the issue of reopening schools has sparked national debate. While many initially believed that kids are less likely to contract and spread the virus, recent reports indicate this may not be universally true. A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association says that cases in children in the United States could be on the rise. 

As of the end of July, 338,982 kids in the country had tested positive, totaling 8.8% of all COVID-19 cases. The report then noted that in the last two weeks of July, over 97,000 children tested positive for the virus, which is a 40% increase in child cases. 

This figure could be even higher, because the report relied on data reported by states, and Texas only reported age distribution in 8% of cases, while New York did not report it outside of New York City. Different states also used different definitions of children. 

While most states set the cutoff between 17 and 19-years-old, some states set it as young as 14. Florida, which is one of the country’s case leaders, was among those states. Other outliers included Alabama, which set their cutoff at 24, and was excluded from some figures in the report. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, this also has a much larger impact on non-white children. An August report noted that Latino and Black children were hospitalized at much higher rates than white children. 

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (CNN) (CBS 46 Atlanta)

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Viral Photo of Crowded Reopened Georgia High School Sparks Concerns

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  • A viral photo showing students at North Paulding High School in Georgia walking in a crowded hallway without masks has sparked widespread concerns about schools reopening safely.
  • According to BuzzFeed News, there is at least one football player that has tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as several staff members.
  • Students who choose to not go to school can be suspended or expelled. Additionally, students who share content criticizing the school can be punished as well, and two have already been suspended for sharing photos of crowded halls, according to BuzzFeed.
  • This school is just one of many in Georgia making headlines for seeing positive COVID-19 cases. In Cherokee County, there are four schools with confirmed cases that have forced dozens of students to quarantine within their first week back.

Viral Photo in North Paulding High School

When North Paulding High School in Georgia opened back up on Monday, kids were crammed in the hallway between classes, shoulder to shoulder, many without masks.

A photo that captured one of these crowded halls quickly went viral, prompting widespread outrage as it highlighted just one of several concerns many have about schools reopening throughout the state.

Paulding County Schools Superintendent Brian Otott addressed the photo in a letter early this week, claiming that it lacked larger context. Masks are not mandatory at North Paulding, as the school district said that the choice to wear a mask is a personal one, and claim enforcing a mandate is not realistic. Otott also said that students are not passing one another in the hallway to transmit COVID-19.

Health experts, however, do not believe this is true. With such close proximity and a lack of masks, transmission in situations like this is still possible. The school’s first day also comes as both new cases and deaths in the state of Georgia are in their peak. So far, the state has had a total of 186,395 cases and 3,899 deaths.

If that photo did not spark enough concerns, there is also already at least one confirmed coronavirus case on North Paulding’s football team. According to BuzzFeed News, footballers at the school are not the only ones at risk.

Teachers told the outlet that there are positive cases among the staff, including an employee who came into contact with most teachers while they were symptomatic. Still, the school will not confirm cases among employees for privacy reasons. 

That was exactly one week ago, so we are all waiting to see who gets sick next week,” one teacher told BuzzFeed.

Most who are nervous about attending school are left with essentially no other option than to face their fears and risk infection. Virtual learning was an option for students at North Paulding, but the limited slots filled up quickly. On top of this, BuzzFeed News learned from a set of parents who wanted to keep their son home upon seeing the photo, that any student who chooses to not attend school could face suspension or expulsion.

On top of this, the school made an announcement warning students that anyone who shared negative content about the school online would face disciplinary action. According to BuzzFeed News, two students have already been suspended for sharing now-viral photos of crowded halls.

Concerns Statewide

North Paulding is not the only school in the state making headlines. In Cherokee County, a second grader tested positive for the virus on the first day of school. Now, their class of 20 students will be quarantining for 14 days. 

On Wednesday, officials announced that three additional schools in the county had positive cases. Those cases involved a first grader, eighth grader, and Kindergarten teacher. Several students and staff at each of these schools now must undergo a two week quarantine as well.

Statewide, school officials are concerned about what the school year will look like.

“So long as COVID-19 runs rampant, there will be too many bodies in close quarters for us to co-exist in a traditional setting,” Dooly County Schools Superintendent Craig Lockhart telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are not ready to return to in-person schooling and be highly confident that we can protect employees and students.”

But on the other side of this, there are parents and students eager to get back to in person classes, either because they trust their school district to handle things well, or because online learning at home just was not working well for them.

“There is a really strong case for trying to reopen schools because there are so many benefits, both for children, not only academic benefits but health and social-emotional health, and also for families, many of whom are trying to get back to work to restart the economy,”  Charlene Wong, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Duke School of Medicine also told the AJC.

Can Kids Spread the Virus?

Still, Wong believes that safety opening schools is complex and requires a multitude of safety measures. The risk is especially high because experts are still in the early stages of learning what role children play in spreading and getting this virus, especially in a crowded space like a school. Currently, most studies and research have not focused on children, so there is not enough data to prove anything just yet, despite the widespread belief that children are less likely to get and transmit the virus.

In fact, one case out of Georgia proves that idea wrong. One summer camp in Georgia was forced to close after there were 260 coronavirus cases on site, the majority of which came from people aged 17 and younger. 

Another study done in South Korea concluded that while children nine and under do not transmit the virus as frequently as adults, the risk of them doing so still exists. That study also claims that people between the ages 10 and 19 actually spread COVID-19 at the same rate as adults. 

See what others are saying: (BuzzFeed News) (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) (Washington Post)

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NJ Woman Charged for Assaulting Staples Customer Who Asked Her to Correctly Wear a Mask

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  • New Jersey Police have charged 25-year-old Terri Thomas with second-degree aggravated assault for violently tossing a woman with a cane to the ground at a Staples store last Wednesday.
  • Thomas attacked 54-year-old Margot Kagan for telling her to wear her face mask properly.
  • Kagan, who police say had a liver transplant four months ago, was hospitalized and is recovering from a leg injury that required surgery as a result of the incident. 

The Incident

Police in New Jersey said Tuesday that they arrested and charged a woman caught on surveillance video attacking a fellow Staples customer who told her to correctly wear her mask. 

The dispute happened inside a Hackensack Staples store last Wednesday when 54-year-old Margot Kagan was using the copy machine. Kagan, who police said had a liver transplant four months ago, noticed 25-year-old Terri Thomas walk by with her mask below her mouth. 

Kagan told a local news station that she told Thomas, “You should really put a mask on,” and warned her that she was endangering everyone. However, the remarks made Thomas angry she reportedly began yelling.

The surveillance footage shows Thomas walking towards Kagan, who lifts her cane to keep Thomas away. Thomas then reaches for the cane and violently tosses Kagan to the ground.

Thomas walks out of view for a few seconds and when she returns, Kagan sticks her leg out to trip Thomas, but Thomas ultimately walks away unharmed and leaves the store. 

Injuries and Charges 

Kagan was hospitalized after the attack and police said she left with a fractured left tibia that required surgery. However, Kagan later told ABC 7 she suffered a broken knee and required a steel plate to be put in. She also claims she’s been told by doctors that she won’t be able to put weight on her leg for seven to 10 weeks. 

As far as Thomas, police have charged her with second-degree aggravated assault and she was released on a summons pending a court appearance on August 24. In New Jersey, the charge is punishable by 5-10 years in jail, and fines as high as $150,000.

Hackensack police are encouraging anyone who witnessed the crime or have any information to reach out to them. 

See what others are saying: (ABC7) (NJ.com) (NBC News)

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