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How Do We Reopen Churches, Mosques, Temples? City Making Plans For Safe Religious Services

The city is looking at how places of worship can safely reopen — but some faith leaders have already flung open the doors.

Metro Praise International at 5405 W. Diversey Ave.
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CHICAGO — The city is making plans for how places of worship can safely reopen the pandemic, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Friday.

Lightfoot said the city is asking volunteers from the faith community to work together to talk about what concerns they have with religious services during the coronavirus crisis and how they could safely start to reopen.

They’ll come up with guidelines that can be used across multiple faiths for when places of worship can eventually reopen.

“We are going to be convening a working group, again, across the various faith conditions to really get granular, like we’ve been doing with other industries, to think about what it means to open up — how to do that safely. Making sure we have real guidance on everything from cleaning, face coverings, can you sing with a mask, not a mask,” Lightfoot said during a call with reporters. “That was the level of detail these faith leaders are rightfully thinking about, and it was a great conversation.”

The mayor’s announcement comes less than a week after multiple churches in Chicago held services in defiance of the stay at home order. And Lightfoot said the city is aware of a “small handful of churches” that are making plans to have services this weekend.

Lightfoot said the city is trying to educate faith leaders into compliance, but the city will enforce the stay at home order if it needs to.

“We’ve been in contact with those churches both by letter but also in contact with other leaders and trying to engage them in a conversation rather than being in conflict, which is always the better course,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve certainly let them know what our expectation is, but we’re hopeful we will not have to take any kind of enforcement action. But if we have to, we will.”

Lightfoot was joined by Bernard Jakes, a leader at West Point Baptist Church, 3566 S. Cottage Grove Ave., who said his congregation has turned to computers and phones to meet and celebrate their faith during the pandemic.

“Social distancing doesn’t mean social disconnection,” Jakes said. “It’s really been coming up with ways to stay connected, and we’ve done a fabulous job doing so because the onus of the responsibility does not rest solely on me. It’s also for those in the congregation to stay connected with each other, as an example.

“The point is that in these times, we can still engage in religious freedoms, we just have to do it differently in order to keep everyone safe. I did share with the congregation that our phases of opening, or reopening, or entering into full capacity must align itself with the state and the city. And, realistically, I do not see us going back to full capacity until 2021.”

Dilara Saeed, of the Illinois Muslim Coalition, said Chicago’s Muslim community hasn’t gathered for religious services since before March 13, the day mosques in the city closed. That’s been difficult as Muslims are celebrating Ramadan, the holiest time of the year.

But Muslims have practiced their faith and supported one another in different ways, Saeed said: Many members of the community are health care professionals serving on the front lines against the pandemic, recognizing that to care is part of their faith.

And mosques and restaurants have turned into places where people can get care bags or information, Saeed said.

“We’re connecting with each other across faiths, we’re connecting with each other across races and we’re connecting with each other across the city,” Saeed said. “We are not alone. We are in this together. And our collective health and safety is our No. 1 priority.”

The majority of faith leaders have followed the stay at home order — but at least two have not. Churches in Albany Park and Belmont Cragin held services last weekend.

Lightfoot said even if people go to religious services thinking they are fine, and even if they pass things like temperature checks, they could still have coronavirus and simply be asymptomatic. That could lead to the virus spreading among others at the service and into the wider community.

That’s particularly of concern as businessman and ex-mayoral candidate Willie Wilson has voiced support for reopening churches in Chicago. Lightfoot said she’s worried if Black churches open due to Wilson’s support, it could lead to more deaths.

“We know that when people are gathering, the risk goes up exponentially, and particularly, looking across the typical demographic of Black churches in Chicago, it’s a lot of very faithful but senior elders, and many of whom have challenging underlying health conditions,” Lightfoot said. “This is not playing Russian roulette. This is playing with a gun that’s fully loaded and cocked.”

Elim Romanian Pentecostal at 4850 N. Bernard St. is among those that sued Gov. JB Pritzker to try to invalidate his state ruling banning large gatherings, effectively sidelining church services.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman threw out the complaint Wednesday, saying the churches did not establish the state’s restrictions unfairly target religious services or gatherings.

Elim Romanian hosted morning and evening services Sunday. Both were live streamed on Facebook. Cristian Ionescu said about 110 people attended each service and he intends to hold services again this weekend.

“Whatever enforcement actions they may take are irrelevant for us,” Ionescu said. “We have announced public services every Sunday and we’re holding on to that with our social distancing in place. We will adhere to that.”

Metro Praise International plans to have services again Sunday, but leader Joe Wyrostek said in a Facebook post he will encourage congregants to wear face masks and to social distance.

Alonso Zaragoza, a neighborhood leader, said that isn’t good enough — and neighbors still plan to protest outside the church Sunday.

“We don’t trust them,” he said. “We’re still going to go through with it. Because if they still have more than 10 people in there, they’re breaking the law.”

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