Churches stop in-person services as Kansas sets virus record

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TOPEKA, Kan. – Some churches in Kansas suspended indoor, in-person worship services and the capital city’s zoo even tightened its rules as the the state set another record Friday for new coronavirus cases.

Public health officials in the Kansas City area urged new limits on restaurants and gatherings on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri state line. But Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly publicly promised leaders of the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature again Friday that she has no plans to shut down businesses like she did for five weeks under a statewide stay-at-home order this spring.

The bishops of the two Episcopal Church dioceses that cover Kansas this week directed their congregations to suspend services and meetings. The diocese covering western Kansas suspended public worship and meetings for two weeks. For eastern Kansas, Bishop Cathleen Chittenden Bascom suspended indoor, in-person services through Dec. 13, though she is allowing outdoor gatherings if people wear masks and social distance. Bascom said the hope is to resume indoor, in-person services two weeks before Christmas.

“We must move back into more online and outdoor spaces, with the hope that the virus spread will be better under control,” she wrote in a letter to church members.

The Rev. Ruben Saenz Jr., bishop for the United Methodist Church conference for Kansas and Nebraska, also encouraged its churches in a letter to suspend in-person services until further notice if they are in counties “identified as being in critical or dangerous statuses.”

The Rev. Cindy Watson, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in downtown Wichita, said it stopped in-person services Nov. 8 in favor of televised and online services. Watson said the church based its decision on guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which considers an area a coronavirus “red zone” if 10% of its tests come back positive.

“It’s 23% now,” Watson said, citing the average over the past two weeks in Sedgwick County, home to Wichita.

But in the Kansas City area, the Church of the Resurrection, the nation’s largest United Methodist congregation, is continuing in-person services. Senior Pastor Adam Hamilton said in a newsletter Friday that attendance at its churches is less 25% of capacity.

“We know that in person attendance is really important for some of you while others are enjoying online or televised worship,” he wrote.

The church would comply if any county stay-at-home orders are issued, spokeswoman Cathy Bien said.

The pandemic’s arrival in Kansas in early March prompted many churches to hold services online for Easter, one of Christianity’s two biggest celebrations. The latest surge in cases is threatening churches’ in-person services for Christmas, the other big annual celebration.

Kansas averaged a record 2,553 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases a day for the seven days ending Friday, breaking the previous high average of 2,430 for the seven days ending Wednesday. Health officials say cases are increasing quickly because people are going to gatherings, such as birthday parties, weddings, baby showers and sporting events.

“In-person church is super risky right now,” said Dr. Beth Oller, a family physician in Rooks County in northwest Kansas. “Jesus would have worn a mask, and he would have told everybody else to, too, because it’s about us taking care of each other.”

The zoo in the state capital of Topeka announced that, starting Saturday, visitors would be required to wear masks even while for their entire time at the zoo or outside on its grounds, except when eating. The zoo previously had allowed visitors to take off their masks when outside and socially distanced.

Zoo director Brendan Wiley noted that some animals are susceptible to coronavirus, including tigers, giraffes, armadillos, sloths and the zoo’s critically endangered black-footed ferret.

The state Department of Health and Environment added 6,282 coronavirus cases to the state’s pandemic tally since Wednesday, increasing it by 5.8% to 115,507. The department also reported 41 additional COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the pandemic total to 1,256.

The state averaged 37 new hospitalizations a day during the seven days ending Friday, just short of the record average of 38. The state had 75 new hospitalizations since Wednesday to bring the total to 4,327.

Public health directors in the Kansas City area urged local officials to close restaurants and bars by 10 p.m. or tighten limits on how many customers they can have inside.

Kelly’s renewed promise Friday to avoid shutting down businesses came as she met with legislative leaders and received their approval for extending a state of emergency for the pandemic until Dec. 15. Top GOP lawmakers first extracted the promise from the Democratic governor in September, and she’s stuck to it.



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