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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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Texas Supreme Court Sides With Gov. Abbott’s Order Limiting Counties to One Ballot Drop Box Each

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  • The Texas Supreme Court sided with Governor Greg Abbott’s order limiting counties to just one ballot drop off box each, arguing that the state has provided voters with plenty of options for the 2020 election. 
  • Also in Texas, a judge ruled against Abbott’s choice to exclude polling locations from the list of places where mask-wearing is mandatory. The judge agreed with critics, who said this discriminates against Black and Latino Texans who are more likely to be harmed by the pandemic. 
  • In other election news, the USPS was ordered to rescind rules limiting mail collection, with a judge saying late and extra trips should be performed to the maximum extent to ensure on-time election deliveries. 

Texas Supreme Court Sides with Abbott

The Texas Supreme Court sided with Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday, ruling in favor of his order that limited counties to just one absentee ballot drop-off location each. 

Abbott’s order was criticized by Democrats and others who said restricting the number of places voters can drop their ballots off, especially in the midst of a worsening pandemic, amounts to voter suppression.

A judge initially overturned Abbott’s order, saying the limit could confuse voters. Shortly after, a federal judge halted their decision and sided with Abbott. 

The state’s Supreme Court concluded that the order “provides Texas voters more ways to vote in the November 3 election than does the Election Code. It does not disenfranchise anyone.”

While the plaintiffs argued that it will require some voters to travel for a longer period of time, the court said that these voters do have other voting options, including sending their ballot via post. The court acknowledged that some fear the United States Postal Service may not deliver their ballot on time, but said that risk is “small.”

“In any event, the Constitution does not require a state to ‘afford every voter multiple infallible ways to vote,’ nor would it be possible for a state to foresee and eliminate every possible contingency that might prevent a given voter from casting a ballot,” the court said.

The stakes in Texas are growing as polling between President Donald Trump and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, are getting tighter. The Cook Political Report moved Texas to its list of toss-up states on Wednesday morning, joining the likes of Florida and Georgia.

Judge Rules in Favor of Mask Wearing at Polls

This was not the only election-related decision handed out in Texas on Tuesday. A federal judge ruled that voters in the state should have to wear masks at polling locations, despite Abbott’s mandate making an exception for them. 

Abbott’s decision to not include polling places on the list of locations where mask wearing is mandatory left a lot of voters in the state feeling uneasy, especially Black and Latino voters. Throughout the country, Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 

In Texas, according to the Texas Tribune, Hispanic Texans made up almost 49% of COVID-19 deaths in the state as of July 30, despite being just under 40% of the population. Black Texans made up 14% of deaths, despite being around 12% of the population. Meanwhile, white Texans have been dying from the disease at a lower rate. 

Because of this, Abbott’s exception was challenged for discriminating against Black and Latino voters. The judge agreed and said that the clause that provided the exception “violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it creates a discriminatory burden on Black and Latino voters..

“For this reason, exemption 8 is invalid and void,” the judge wrote. 

Other Election News

Other states have also seen significant rulings when it comes to voting. In Michigan, a judge struck down the Secretary of State’s ban on open carry at the polls on Election Day. The judge argued that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson did not follow the proper procedure to create an administrative rule when enacting the ban, which the judge believes should be necessary in this case. Benson already plans to overturn it. 

“As the state’s chief elections officer, I have the sworn duty to protect every voter and their right to cast the ballot free from intimidation and harassment,” she said to the Detroit Free Press. “I will continue to protect that right in Michigan.”

In South Carolina, a federal judge ruled that ballots in the state cannot be thrown out over mismatched signatures, claiming that the state does not have a consistent process for matching signatures. According to the Washington Post, the judge said that some counties had already disqualified ballots on signature issues without organization. He said that this is “obviously a significant burden” on voting rights. 

On a federal level, a judge made a decision in hopes of getting more absentee ballots delivered and counted for the election. Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District Court for the District of Columbia ordered that as of Wednesday morning, the USPS must reverse its limitations on mail collection, which were enacted by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, an ardent supporter of President Trump. Those limitations went in place over the summer and limited late or extra trips, significantly slowing down down mail delivery time. These mail lags prompted Sullivan to order that they be rescinded. 

“USPS personnel are instructed to perform late and extra trips to the maximum extent necessary to increase on-time mail deliveries, particularly for Election Mail,” Sullivan wrote.

“To be clear, late and extra trips should be performed to the same or greater degree than they were performed prior to July 2020 when doing so would increase on-time mail deliveries. Any prior communication that is inconsistent with this instruction should be disregarded.”

See what others are saying: (Texas Tribune) (Detroit Free Press) (Washington Post)

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Increased COVID-19 Hospitalizations Are Straining Medical Resources in the U.S.

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  • COVID-19 hospitalizations reached almost 43,000 on Monday, their highest point since August 19. A total of 36 states have seen at least a 5% increase in hospitalizations compared to last week.
  • In Utah, ICU occupancy hit nearly 70% and hospitals are prepared to start rationing ICU space this week or next. In El Paso, Texas, occupancy hit 100% and medical workers are taking patients to field or mobile units for care.
  • On top of this, some hospitals, including ones in Utah, are understaffed right now. Many hospital staffers are battling physical and emotional exhaustiong from dealing with the pandemic for seven months with no end in sight.

Hospitalizations Go Up

As coronavirus cases inch upwards across the country, hospitalizations are following, setting a trend that worries health experts heading into the winter. 

Over the past week, the United States has set its record for the highest single day of cases reported and the highest seven-day average of new cases. Nearly 43,000 hospitalizations were reported on Monday, the highest number since August 19. It is a staggering jump upward from the start of the month when hospitalizations were at 30,700.

CNBC reported that in 36 states, hospitalizations have risen by at least 5% compared to where they were just last week. The caseload is straining hospitals across the country, which are bracing for these spikes to get even worse. 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, there has been a 157% increase in hospitalizations in Pennsylvania compared to this time last month. New Jersey has seen a 125% jump while Delaware saw 69% growth.

Hospitals and Local Governments Respond to Increases

In Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, 771 people have been hospitalized for the virus in the past two weeks, the highest number of any 14 day period since the start of the pandemic. There, the ICU occupancy hit 68.9% on Monday and state officials and hospital administrators are prepared to ration ICU space this week or next week. This means some ICU patients whose condition is worsening might be forced out of the unit. Older patients, who are more likely to die, will likely be forced out before younger ones. One doctor said capacity is being assessed “on a minute to minute basis, almost.”

The Texas Tribune reported that there has been a 300% increase in hospitalizations in El Paso over the last three weeks. ICU beds have reached 100% capacity and patients are now being taken to mobile and field units to be cared for. The city has put in place a 10:00 p.m. curfew to curb the spread. City officials are also encouraging citizens to stay home as much as possible over the next two weeks. 

Impact on Hospitals and Staff

Experts have long predicted that the virus would pick up in the colder months of the year. With such a steep case increase before winter has even arrived, health officials are worried about this trend. But with all these numbers trending upwards at alarming rates, there are a lot of health officials concerned. 

“This is a harbinger of a very tough winter that’s coming. I think hospitals are going to be very, very stressed this fall and winter,”  Dr. Bill Schaffner, an epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University told CNBC.

On top of this, hospital staffers are suffering from COVID fatigue. Doctors and nurses have been dealing with the pandemic for the majority of the year with no end in sight. This has led to physical and emotional exhaustion. Some hospitals are also understaffed. 

“We’re down 20% to 30%,” Greg Bell, the president of the Utah Hospital Association told the Tribune. “Hundreds and hundreds of nurses are not able to work as they were [before] because of their own disease or infection in the family, or they’re moms and dads with school issues. Some are worn out, some are on leave because they’ve been doing this for seven months.”

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (Salt Lake Tribune) (Vox)

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Protests Erupt in Philadelphia After the Fatal Police Shooting of Walter Wallace Jr

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  • Officers in West Philadelphia repeatedly fired at a Black man who approached them while armed with a knife Monday afternoon. Shortly thereafter, the man was pronounced dead.
  • During that incident, multiple witnesses reportedly told police that the man, 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr., struggled with mental health issues.
  • Following Wallace’s death, many people were outraged that police didn’t use more nonlethal tactics to subdue him.
  • That outrage prompted a night of protests that became violent, with demonstrators hurling objects at police, police rushing demonstrators with shields and batons, and looters taking advantage of the unrest. 

Police Shooting of Walter Wallace Jr.

Protests rocked Philadelphia Monday night following the fatal police shooting of a Black man who had been wielding a knife in the street earlier in the day. 

The man has been identified as 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. According to his family, he struggled with mental health issues. Because of that, Monday night’s protests were mainly geared toward the fact that officers used lethal force instead of a less-lethal method to subdue him.

The situation began Monday afternoon around 4 p.m. when two still-unnamed officers in West Philadelphia responded to a report of a man wielding a knife in the street. According to police spokesperson Eric Gripp, the two officers ordered Wallace to drop the knife but he refused.

In a video captured at the scene by a witness, Wallace can be seen walking on the street. The two officers have their guns drawn. Meanwhile, a woman later identified as Wallace’s mother appears to be pleading with Wallace as she follows him.

At one point, Wallace raises his hand and approaches the officers, who back away. The video then moves out of view, but multiple shots can be heard. When it swings back into frame, Wallace can be seen falling to the ground. A group of people, including the officers, swarm around him.

“Y’all didn’t have to give him that many fucking shots!” one witness, presumably the person filming, yells at the police. 

Following the shooting, one of the officers reportedly drove Wallace to the hospital, where he then died.

Within hours, more details around the incident began to come out. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Wallace’s father said his son struggled with mental health issues and that he was on medication. 

“Why didn’t they use a Taser?” he said. “His mother was trying to defuse the situation.”

That claim was backed up by a witness who also told The Inquirer that, in the beginning, Wallace was standing on the porch of his home, knife drawn. When police arrived, that witness — Maurice Holloway — said they immediately drew their guns. 

From there, Holloway said Wallace started walking down the steps of the porch and into the street. At the same time, Holloway noted that Wallace’s mother was attempting to shield him from the police and tell them that he was her son.

“I’m yelling, ‘Put down the gun, put down the gun,’” Holloway told The Inquirier, “and everyone is saying, ‘Don’t shoot him, he’s gonna put it down, we know him.’”

While Gripp said it was unclear how many times Wallace was shot, Wallace’s father believes he was shot 10 times. The Inquirer currently estimates that the officers could have fired more than a dozen rounds, and the newspaper noted that police later marked the scene with at least 13 evidence markers. 

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Protests Erupt in Philadelphia

Much like Wallace’s father and Holloway, many were furious that officers repeatedly shot Wallace, arguing that they could have subdued him with much less-lethal force.

Arnett Woodall, a community organizer who lives a several blocks away, told The Inquirer that the number of evidence markers at the scene showed this was “a textbook example of excessive force.”

“Why not a warning shot?” Woodall asked. “Why not a Taser? Why not a shot in the leg?”

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said in statement that Wallace’s death proves the need for more mental health initiatives. 

“It is time to divest in police and invest in community programs, including the kind of mental health services that allow intervention that may have prevented Mr. Wallace’s killing,” he said.

According to reports, more than 300 protesters gathered on the streets of Philadelphia Monday night, many of them chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Say his name: Walter Wallace.”

Those protesters originally marched to a police station, where they met officers in riot gear. Officers then pushed the crowd back with shields before rushing them and beating some people with batons.

Some people also engaged in violent tactics by throwing objects at the officers. Others started multiple fires, including one situation where a police vehicle was set on fire. At least five more police vehicles were vandalized over the course of the night. 

As the night went on, looters capitalized on the unrest, breaking into multiple businesses. Police later said they ultimately arrested around 30 people for throwing objects or looting — including some in areas not near the protest. 

According to local outlets, at least 30 Philly police officers were hospitalized with various injuries Tuesday morning, though all but one have since been treated and released. The lone remaining officer is a 56-year-old female sergeant who suffered a broken leg after being hit by a black pickup truck during the night. 

Investigation Underway

Alongside these protests, John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, has stood by the two officers involved in the incident. 

“Our police officers are being vilified this evening for doing their job and keeping the community safe, after being confronted by a man with a knife,” he said. “We support and defend these officers, as they too are traumatized by being involved in a fatal shooting.”

Several Philadelphia officials have called for a full investigation into the shooting, including Mayor Jim Kenney who said in a statement, “My prayers are with the family and friends of Walter Wallace. I have watched the video of this tragic incident and it presents difficult questions that must be answered.” 

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has announced an investigation into the shooting by the Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Unit. While that investigation is ongoing, both officers have been pulled from street-duty. Reportedly, both officers had their body cams turned on, and that footage will play a role in the investigation.

“I recognize that the video of the incident raises many questions,” Outlaw said in a statement. “Residents have my assurance that those questions will be fully addressed by the investigation. While at the scene this evening, I heard and felt the anger of the community. Everyone involved will forever be impacted.”

Outlaw also noted that she plans to meet with members of the community, as well as Wallace’s family, “to hear their concerns.”

While this investigation is underway, Philly District Attorney Larry Krasner has called for an end to the violence.

“In the hours and days following this shooting, we ask Philadelphians to come together to uphold people’s freedom to express themselves peacefully and to reject violence of any kind,” he said.

See what others are saying: (The Philadelphia Inquirer) (WCAU) (The Washington Post)

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