Gov. Abbott Says Religious Services Are Essential — So Can Churches Still Meet? Here’s What He Says.

By Marisa Charpentier, KUT

When Gov. Greg Abbott issued his executive order Tuesday restricting nonessential activities, he made sure to note religious services are considered essential.

But in a time when people aren’t supposed to gather, what can and can’t houses of worship do? The governor’s office and the Office of the Attorney General released some guidance Wednesday.

Here’s a breakdown of what it says. Read the actual document here.

A sign outside a Quaker meeting house in Austin encourages people to worship at home during the coronavirus pandemic. (Julia Reihs / KUT)

Remote services

Many religious groups often meet in large gatherings in one building, but that’s not what federal and state authorities are saying people should do during this pandemic. Under the governor’s order, houses of worship should conduct their services remotely whenever possible. That means via audio, video or teleconference. 

What if a group can’t conduct a religious service remotely?

If a house of worship doesn’t have the technological or financial ability to provide remote service, Abbott’s order says it should conduct its activities in accordance with White House guidelines. 

That means:

  • Telling staff, volunteers and attendees to stay home if they are sick
  • Maintaining appropriate distance between people (6 feet per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • Washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, coughing and sneezing into an elbow and not touching one’s face
  • Cleaning and disinfecting spaces frequently

Some houses of worship must avoid gatherings

The governor and attorney general say houses of worship should work with their city or county to evaluate the rate of local community spread of COVID-19 in their area and determine what level of mitigation strategies to implement. If a community is experiencing substantial community spread, all in-person gatherings of any size should be canceled, the guidance states.

Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in that community, not from traveling, and they may not know where they got it. 

If a community has moderate to substantial spread, the governor and AG’s offices say they should follow CDC recommendations: reduce activities in coordination with local health officials, smaller gatherings with social-distancing measures may be possible, cancel activities with 10 or more people when high-risk groups attend (people 65 and older or those with underlying health conditions), and use “creative means” to deliver services.

Creative means? The governor and AG’s offices have some ideas: Hold Easter service in the parking lot with people in their cars — windows down — in every other parking spot. The worship leader can talk over a loudspeaker. Or provide services, like communion or a blessing, via drive-thru.

What about local stay-at-home orders?

The governor says entities providing religious services should follow both the governor’s order and local orders. In situations where the two conflict, the governor’s order overrides. In Austin’s stay-at-home order, religious entities are not explicitly mentioned as essential services — as the governor’s order now makes them — but the local order does state church staff or clergy can travel in order to facilitate the production of remote religious services or for other ministries requiring travel.

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