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Exemptions for Religious Gatherings During Pandemic Cause Confusion

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  • About a dozen states that have issued stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic have also made exemptions for religious gatherings.
  • A combination of mixed messaging from leaders, misreporting by the media, and overlapping decisions made at the state, county, and city levels have led to confusion about the exemptions.
  • Even in states with very clear bans, several religious leaders have continued to hold gatherings, arguing that banning them violates the first amendment.
  • Some churches in Arkansas, California, Illinois, and other states have already reported outbreaks that spread among members after they held large gatherings.

Religious Exemptions in States

With the Easter holidays rapidly approaching, state-wide exemptions for religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic have sparked confusion, concern, and a heated debate about religious freedoms.

Part of the confusion stems from the difficulty in pinning down exactly how many places that have shelter in place orders also have exemptions for religious gatherings. 

According to the New York Times, “41 states, three counties, eight cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home.”

In some places, like California, in-person religious gatherings have been outright banned throughout the whole state. In others, it is not as clear-cut.

This is not helped by a large amount of misreporting on how many states have religious exemptions.

Some of the misreporting and confusion is due to the fact that while some states explicitly list religious gatherings as exempt, others, like Alabama and South Carolina, just provide a list of entities that have to close. Those lists do not include religious organizations.

Around a dozen states have some kind of religious exemption for stay-at-home orders.

Florida, Texas & Religious Freedoms

There’s also an issue with overlapping authority regarding decisions made at the state level versus the county and city levels.

For example, last week, Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for holding services despite the shelter in place order in Hillsborough County, where his church was.

A few days later, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis implemented a state-wide safer and home order that explicitly allowed religious gatherings.

“There’s no reason why you can’t do a church service with people spread 10 feet apart, so we definitely ask them to abide by social distancing guidelines, but I think, in times like this, the service they are providing is very important for people,” DeSantis said, despite the fact that there was no clear indication in his order that social distancing rules needed to be followed.

Following DeSantis’ announcement, Howard-Browne said he will keep his church shut down because he received death threats, though he still pushed back against the county’s now-defunct order.

“The First Amendment provides express protections to houses of worship and assembly,” he said in a statement. “There is no similar constitutional protection for commercial businesses; yet houses of worship and religious gatherings are signaled out for discrimination.”

Religious institutions are largely believed to be protected from regulations in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that a law cannot “unduly burden” a religion unless there is a “compelling interest.”

But whether or not the pandemic can be considered “compelling” is a much bigger and more complicated constitutional debate, as there is no precedent for a pandemic in the modern world of this scale and magnitude.

Florida is not alone here. Last week, three pastors in Texas filed a lawsuit against Harris County, where Houston is located, after a stay-at-home order that barred religious gatherings was put in place.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also signed a statewide shelter in place order that allowed religious gatherings a few days later, and like in Florida, the state-wide order in Texas effectively made the local orders moot.

Mixes Messages & Ignored Orders

Mixed messaging from leaders has also added to the confusion.

The Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio generated viral buzz Sunday after a CNN report showed numerous cars leaving a Palm Sunday service. When one of the drivers was asked if she was concerned about spreading the virus, she responded, “No, I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”

According to reports, the town’s mayor had specifically asked that the church stop holding in-person services, a request which it rejected.

The point was also echoed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

“Any pastor who brings people together, in close proximity to each other, a large group of people, is making a huge mistake,” he said. “It’s not a Christian thing to do.”

That, however, was confusing to some, because DeWine was the one who issued the order allowing for religious exemptions in the first place.

But even in places where there are very clear-cut orders explicitly banning religious gatherings, some churches are outright ignoring them.

In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church held services Sunday despite the fact that he had been arrested for violating the state’s order and holding services just a few days earlier.

In Sacramento, the Bethany Slavic Missionary megachurch reportedly continued to hold services even after 71 members of the congregation tested positive for the coronavirus. The church was shuttered as of this weekend.

Hotspot for Spread

The Bethany Slavic Missionary church was not the only religious institution that has made way for the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, several religious gatherings have proven to be hotspots for the contraction and spread of the virus.

In February, six people who attended a church conference at a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky tested positive. North Carolina public health officials have said “multiple cases” of the virus are connected to a March event held by the Faith Assembly Christian Center at another hotel Durham.

Rural Minnesota has reported at least nine cases that were traced to one church, and at least 10 members of a church in a suburb of Chicago got sick after a March 15 service.

In Arkansas, more than three dozen people who attended a children’s event at a church tested positive at the end of March.

See what others are saying: (ABC News) (The Hill) (The Guardian)

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Police Are Looking for a Cyclist Who Assaulted a Group Posting George Floyd Flyers

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  • Viral video shows a cyclist in Maryland assaulting a group of young people who were posing flyers about George Floyd’s murder. 
  • Though internet users and some news outlets reported that one person assaulted was a child, one anonymous victim has clarified that all three are adults. 
  • Authorities have asked the public to help identify the cyclist but warned against posting tips publicly after one man was falsely accused of the crime. 
  • As of Friday morning, authorities say they have found one strong suspect.

The Viral Video 

Authorities in Maryland are asking the public for assistance in identifying a cyclist who was caught on video assaulting three young adults as they posted flyers demanding justice for George Floyd.

The incident took place on the Capital Crescent Tail in Montgomery County on June 1, and a cell phone video of what happened was later shared online.

The video begins with the cyclist, who appears to be a white male, approaching one young woman with a flyer already in his hand. “Get away from me,” she tells him. 

“Hey leave her alone,” the person behind the camera shouts. But the cyclist quickly turns around and heads towards a different woman as the first woman yells, “Do not touch her! Do not touch her! She has nothing! Do not touch her!”

The man grabs the second woman’s wrist and aggressively pulls a roll of tape off her arm as she tries to resist. The first woman then appears on screen pushing him away and yelling, “Hey, get off of her!” 

“Fuck you,” the man responds, then heads towards his bike.

When the person filming tells him to leave, the cyclist grabs his bike and charges towards him. The man recording runs before dropping the cell phone. From there, the cyclist is heard saying, “You want it? Give it to me,” as the fallen individual replies, “There’s the tape.”

Cameraman Speaks Out 

“He was just cycling down the trail,” the victim recording, who wished to remain anonymous, told Path.com.

“He videoed us on his first pass by, then stopped about 50 feet passed us and asked to see my signs, in a friendly tone. When I went to show him the signs he ripped them out of my hands and then started to go after my friends. That’s when I started recording.”

Speaking anonymously once again, that victim told NBC Washington that the cyclist rammed him with his bike and pinned him to the ground. He also told the outlet that all three victims, including two 19-year-old women, are adults, despite reports from internet users and news outlets claiming one was a child. 

“Honestly, I was mostly scared for my friends,” he told Patch. “While I’m young, I’m not a tiny person and I can defend myself if need be … my friends that I was with are both small women and to have a large man approach them and physically rip things out of their hands is quite terrifying, and they were both pretty shaken up after.”

According to some reports, the anonymous cameraman posted the footage on Reddit. Though it cannot be confirmed if the Reddit user is the same person who spoke to reporters, they shared a similar explanation about what lead up the incident online.

That user also posted a photo of the flyer the group was allegedly hanging up, which reads: “Killer Cops Will Not Go Free – Text ‘Floyd to 55156.’” 

maryland bicyclist sign
Reddit: Flabbadabbadooh

Authorities Ask for Help

Park Police tweeted a post on June 2, asking the public for identifying information, along with the number for the detective on the case. 

After the footage spread across social media, many began trying to help. As a result, a Bethesda man named Peter Weinberg was accused of being the man responsible for the attack. That’s because users found evidence that he had biked the trail on May 31 and June 2, however as police later clarified, the incident took place on June 1.

Internet users began tweeting at his employer and sharing his LinkedIn information. Then, Weinberg issued a statement Thursday saying he had been “misidentified in connection with a deeply disturbing attack.”

He later shared a police report to prove he was excluded as a suspect in the case.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh also asked that the public help identify the cyclist, however, after seeing Weinberg be falsely accused online, he asked people to share their tips to authorities instead of posting them online. “Hundreds of thousands of bikers, myself included, use this path,” he warned.

Shortly after that tweet, he said police had found a strong suspect, but still added “please don’t name individuals & risk harm to innocent people.”

Many on social media continued to make accusations, eventually spreading a rumor that the cyclist is a former Montgomery County police officer. By Friday afternoon, however, the department released a statement calling that claim false.

See what others are saying: (Patch) (Insider) (NBC Washington)

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Two Buffalo Police Officers Suspended Without Pay After Shoving 75-Year-Old Protester

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Photo: WBFO

  • Video shared on social media shows police officers in Buffalo, New York pushing an elderly protestor to the ground, causing blood to pour out from his ear and pool beneath his head.
  • The video contradicted an earlier statement from the department that said the man tripped and fell.
  • After the footage went viral, two officers involved were suspended without pay pending an investigation.
  • The injured man is still in serious but stable condition as of Friday morning, but is said to be “alert and oriented.”

Update: The entire Buffalo Police Department Emergency Response Team has reportedly resigned from the voluntary assignment as a “show of support and disgust” over the suspensions. The 57 officers are still members of the police department.

Video Appears Online 

Two police officers in Buffalo, New York were suspended without pay Thursday after video showed them pushing an elderly man to the ground. 

The incident happened during a demonstration in Niagara Square, where people gathered to call for racial justice since the killing of Geroge Floyd.

In a clip filmed by WBFO, a local radio station, a 75-year-old man approaches officers to speak with them. An officer can be heard repeatedly yelling, “push him back.” Around the same time, one officer pushes his arm into the man’s chest, while another extends his baton toward him, gripping it with both hands.

Their shove sends the man backward, causing him to land onto the sidewalk. Though he lands out of the camera’s view, a loud thud can be heard as he hits the ground.

When the camera angles toward him, blood immediately begins to pool beneath his head, seeming to stream down from his right ear. The officer who used his baton to push him leans down to examine the hurt man, but another officer forces him to continue moving forward.

The injured man remained motionless on the floor as dozens of officers continued to walk forward and arrest other protesters. One remained near the man, calling for assistance on his radio. 

Warning: The footage included below is graphic.

Video Contradicts Police Statement 

Around the same time that WBFO shared its video of the incident on Twitter, WKBW reporter Jeff Ruso pointed to a statement from the Buffalo Police Department. In it, the department said it arrested five people at the demonstration, adding that during a “skirmish involving protestors, one person was injured when he tripped & fell.” 

He also linked to footage of the incident from another angle, which again showed officers shoving the elderly man. 

Within the hour, the department told reporters that it was just made aware of the video and was looking into to further.

Officers Suspended

About another hour later, the BPD Commissioner Byron Lockwood said he ordered the immediate suspension of the two officers pending an investigation.  

“This incident is wholly unjustified and utterly disgraceful,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Twitter.

Cuomo added that he spoke with Mayor Byron Brown and agreed that the officers should be suspended. “Police Officers must enforce — NOT ABUSE — the law.”

Minutes later, the mayor released a statement formally announcing the suspension, admitting that the officers “knocked down a 75-year-old man.”

He stated that the man was in serious but stable condition at Erie County Medical Center and added that he was “deeply disturbed by the video.”

“After days of peaceful protests and several meetings between myself, police leadership and members of the community, tonight’s event is disheartening,” he said.

While some applauded the swift action taken to address the situation, the incident added to the distrust in police felt by many across the nation. As some pointed out, officers likely wouldn’t have faced consequences had it not been for the video recordings. 

As far as the injured man, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz tweeted Friday morning that a hospital official said the man was “alert and oriented.” He is still in stable but serious condition.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (Fox News

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Some Health Officials Think Protests Are Worth the Risk, Even as Cases are Expected to Spike

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Photo by Phil Roeder

  • COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are rising, and while some outlets have indicated this could be because of protests, it is too soon to tell what kind of impact these marches have had on case growth.
  • The new spikes are likely linked to cities and states reopening. Still, most health experts think that because social distancing is near impossible in protesting crowds, the country will see an increase of cases in the next few weeks tied to the protests. 
  • But that does not mean all health officials are against the protests. Many believe protesting for racial equality is worth the risk.
  • Some say that because COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Black communities, the protests are especially important so people can fight against the racial injustice that caused this. 

COVID-19 Case Growth

With coronavirus cases on the rise, some have been quick to blame the recent nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. However, experts note that it’s actually too soon to tie the demonstrations as the cause of cause of the surge.

Some officials believe protest-related surges are on the way, but some still think protesting is worth the risk.

On Monday, Johns Hopkins reported over 21,188 new cases of coronavirus in one day across the United States. While this is slightly lower, though essentially on par with last week’s daily average of 21,294 cases, it is part of a general trend of daily averages increasing.

Between May 26 and May 28 the average was 19,800 new cases. This figure went up to 21,700 new cases per day between May 30 and June 1. 

While some outlets correlated this case spike with the recent protests across the country, the protests have only been going on for around a week. Experts like Mark Shrime, a public-health researcher at Harvard, told The Atlantic that while he anticipates a spike eventually, we will not see it for ten to 14 days because of COVID-19’s long incubation period.

In some places, experts are not anticipating the data on cases to reflect the protests for even longer, including Southern California, which may not see protests-related coronavirus cases in health department data for another three or four weeks. 

Ties to Stay At Home Orders Ending

Some believe that this slew of cases could likely be tied to local government’s decisions to reopen in May. Palm Beach County in Florida showed the biggest one-day increase in coronavirus cases three weeks after reopening. While the South Florida Sun Sentinel says it may be too soon to tell if that’s the cause, it does mark an increase in the average number of cases being reported.

States like Texas and Arizona have also started to end their stay at home orders and have seen resulting spikes. According to KPNX in Arizona, three weeks after their order was phased out, the state saw one of the fastest-growing caseloads in the country, with a 70% increase after things reopened. 

Some health officials, like Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, anticipated the fact that the public would blame spikes on the protests, instead of the fact that states elected to ease lockdown restrictions. 

“What I fear will happen, particularly in those states, is that any increase in cases in the next couple of weeks will be blamed on protestors,” she told The Verge, even though, “There are multiple things happening at the same time.”

Because social distancing in these protest crowds is nearly impossible, health officials do believe a spike is coming. Many protesters are doing their best to mitigate risks by wearing masks, and spread could also be lessened because these protests are outside. Still, tight spaces and the use of tear gas, which causes coughing, could aid the virus’ ability to travel.

Why Some Health Officials Support Protests Despite Risk

Still, many health officials and activists think protesting is worth the risk. 

“I personally believe that these particular protests—which demand justice for black and brown bodies that have been brutalized by the police—are a necessary action,” Maimuna Majumder a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told The Atlantic. “Structural racism has been a public-health crisis for much longer than the pandemic has.”

“The threat to Covid control from protesting outside is tiny compared to the threat to Covid control created when governments act in ways that lose community trust,” tweeted Dr. Tom Frieden. 

While the major focus of these protests is to demand justice for George Floyd and an end to police violence against Black Americans, they are also calling for an end to racial injustice of all kinds. Among the many other injustices Black Americans face includes a higher coronavirus death rate than white Americans. 

In Washington D.C., where 46% of the population is African American, they account for 75% of the district’s deaths. In Wisconsin, where less than 7% of the state’s residents are Black, they total 25% percent of the state’s deaths. Numerous other states and cities are also experiencing the same problem. 

“So many black communities are protesting because they have to,” said Doctor Mike in Wednesday video. “At a time of a pandemic, when they’re not only putting their lives on the line because of police injustice but also because of this virus. And COVID-19 has already dramatically and drastically affected communities of color disproportionately to other communities.

Impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans

Multiple factors contribute to this high death rate. African Americans are systemically under treated by the U.S. healthcare systems. Black Americans are more likely to have underlying conditions like high blood pressure, are less likely to be insured, and are more frequently denied access to testing and treatment. Throughout the pandemic, Black and Hispanic workers have also been less likely to work from home, further increasing their potential exposure to the virus. 

“Unless we are out there protesting in the streets, we can either be killed by Covid-19 just as easily as we can be killed by a cop,” Minneapolis activist Mike Griffin told Bloomberg. 

Marcus echoed the need for the protests. 

“Ultimately, these protests, if they bring us any semblance of progress in terms of structural racism — they will have had a positive impact on public health, not a negative one,” she told The Verge.

Others are still concerned about the potential consequences. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Politico that he understands the anger behind these protests and why people are out there, but still has his fears. 

“I remain concerned about the public health consequences both of individual and institutional racism [and] people out protesting in a way that is harmful to themselves and to their communities,” Adams said. 

“There is going to be a lot to do after this, even to try and get the communities of color back to where they need to be for people to be able to recover from Covid, and for people to be able to recover from the shutdown and to be able to prosper,” he continued. 

See what others are saying: (The Atlantic) (The Verge) (Politico)

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