CARBONDALE — As some businesses, churches, day care centers and other operations prepare to reopen or expand beginning Friday, Jackson County Health Administrator Bart Hagston is asking that people remain mindful of social distancing and hygiene practices that can slow the spread of COVID-19.
“A large percentage of the population, I know, is ready to move from Phase 2 to Phase 5 and forget phases 3 and 4 in the state plan, and I get it,” Hagston said. “Public health staff are ready for us to be at Phase 5, too. But the safety precautions built into those incremental phases are very important. This virus is still out there. That’s pretty obvious from the large number of cases we’ve had in Jackson County in the last week. And we fear that if people don’t follow appropriate precautions that we will see a larger jump in the number of cases in the coming weeks.”
As of Thursday, Jackson County is reporting 260 cases of COVID-19 — and 25% of those cases have been reported in the past week. A significant number of the new cases are tied to an outbreak at a Jackson County church that has been holding in-person services against public health guidance, Hagston said. The cases involve both church members and close contacts that members have in the community.
Hagston declined to name the church, other than to say it is located in Jackson County. He said the congregation had stopped meeting in accordance with the stay-at-home order when it was originally issued in March, but has since resumed services. With the outbreak detected, the church agreed to voluntarily stop holding in-person services for the time being, Hagston said.
Hagston said the health department has been contacted by a number of churches seeking guidance and information about risks to church members if they do reopen. He said that he and his staff have had many frank discussions with church leaders.
“It’s a fine line with churches, and obviously, we respect their constitutional rights to practice freedom of religion and to worship in the ways that they see fit,” Hagston said. “But we certainly are hoping that they are taking all of this information and coming to the conclusion that they need to continue to worship online and in other ways.” For instance, Hagston said that several Jackson County churches have been successfully holding drive-in services.
On Thursday, the Illinois Department of Public Health issued a nine-page document outlining guidance for houses of worship — notably described as recommendations rather than requirements. The stay-at-home order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on May 1 deemed churches an essential service, but limited in-person gatherings to no more than 10 people. Some Chicago-area churches had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in state health guidelines that limited church gatherings to such small numbers.
“Recognizing the centrality of worship in many people’s lives and the spiritual and emotional value of prayer, community, and faith, this guidance provides recommendations for places of worship that choose to resume or expand in-person activities, and for those that do not,” IDPH’s new guidance states.
The guidance stresses that online or drive-in services remain the safest way to worship, but also offers recommendations for houses of worship that decide to hold in-person services. Among the IDPH recommendations is that houses of worship that do hold in-person services limit capacity to allow for extensive social distancing between congregants, ideally to 25% of building capacity or fewer than 100 attendees. IDPH is also recommending small, separate services for different groups, thorough cleaning between services, and outdoor worship services as a safer alternative to meeting indoors.
“This guidance does not obligate or encourage places of worship to resume in-person activity,” it reads. “Indeed, it is strongly recommended that places of worship continue to facilitate remote services, particularly for those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 including older adults and those with co-morbidities.”
Hagston said the Jackson County church that has experienced the outbreak is not likely the only one that has already been holding in-person services, even though the new guidelines are not effective until May 29.
Nail and hair salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors, bars and restaurants with outdoor seating, shooting ranges, gyms for one-on-one and outdoor training, retail shops, business offices, daycares and manufacturing plants are also able to begin reopening on Friday, with modifications.
With these changes, Hagston said public health officials expect to see the spread of the virus grow. That’s why he said it’s imperative that people continue to follow practices such as wearing a mask in public, frequently washing their hands, and limiting nonessential gatherings to small groups.
“That guidance, it’s not perfect,” Hagston said of the governor's Restore Illinois plan. “But we’ve looked through it and it does have a lot of good recommendations for people to follow. These recommendations — if they are followed by businesses and their patrons — will reduce the risk of spreading the disease within these businesses."
"We think it’s important that we take this next step without creating undue risk to people.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with a clarification. The original version said that two-thirds of 65 new cases were tied to an outbreak at a Jackson County church. It should have said that two-thirds of 55 cases were tied to the outbreak at the church. The story correctly stated that there had been 65 new cases between May 21 and May 28, but the health department director was referring to a slightly different timeline that included 55 new cases.
COVID-19 numbers in Southern Illinois
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI
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