A New York Times story meant to prove churches are a major source of COVID-19 outbreak actually did just the opposite, some Christian leaders say.
The story referenced cases tied to churches in Texas, Louisiana, Oregon and other states and said “more than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic,” with “many of them erupting over the last month as Americans resumed their pre-pandemic activities, according to a New York Times database.”
The news aggregator website The Drudge Report linked to the story, which ran under the headline, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”
But as author and blogger Ed Stetzer noted, the 650-plus nationwide church cases are only a sliver of the total number of cases nationwide.
“There are now 3 million people infected in the United States,” Stetzer wrote in his blog at Christianity Today. Stetzer is the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. “Furthermore, there were 60,000 cases each of the past two days in America. That's almost 100 times the 650 cases that the New York Times reports in churches – and that is since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Others agreed with Stetzer’s take.
“This NY Times story is a joke. 650 cases = ‘major source’ of cases,” tweeted Mark Haas, who works in public relations with the archdiocese of Denver. “There are 3.1 million cases in the U.S. So that's 0.02%. The U.S. recently saw 60,000 new cases in a day. So the Church related cases, over months, would only equal 1% of a single day.”
This NY Times story is a joke. 650 cases = "major source" of cases. There are 3.1 million cases in the U.S. So that's 0.02%. The U.S. recently saw 60,000 new cases in a day. So the Church related cases, over months, would only equal 1% of a single day. https://t.co/dnEBJpgSrS— Mark Haas (@markhaastv) July 9, 2020
“How many 1000's of churches are meeting now? And the @nytimes finds 650 cases linked to only 40 religious institutions ... and that is a ‘major source,’” tweeted Hershael York, Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Let's put the stats in context, folks! Why this relentless obsession with churches?”
How many 1000's of churches are meeting now? And the @nytimes finds 650 cases linked to only 40 religious institutions . . . and that is a "major source". Let's put the stats in context, folks! Why this relentless obsession with churches? https://t.co/xYGxVWDa3h— Hershael York (@hershaelyork) July 8, 2020
Stetzer said he read the article with “great interest” because he is someone who “has strongly advocated for churches to take COVID seriously, and whose church is not yet meeting.”
“And, after reading it twice, I can say that this article seems to tell a different story than its title,” Stetzer wrote.
Still, the article included helpful information, he wrote.
“Churches have overwhelmingly been partners with health authorities and have carefully taken each small step,” Stetzer wrote, summarizing the story.
Cynthia Fierro Harvey, a bishop with the United Methodist Church in Louisiana, told The New York Times, “Our churches have followed protocols – masks, go in one door and out the other, social distancing.”
Stetzer also criticized The Times for burying a significant point: Some of the “recent cases appear to have occurred in churches that did not require masks or keep members apart,” The Times story said. A church in Oregon that did not social distance was linked to 200-plus cases. The pastor of a San Antonio church linked to more than 50 cases said he became too lax and that the church stopped social distancing: “People were lonely. They were out of fellowship for all the weeks we were gone. So, I said if you want to hug it's OK to do it.”
“[M]aking churches out to be the problem does not come from the data,” Stetzer wrote. “... Will there be an outbreak at a church that follows the rules? Yes. there will be. Just like there will be at colleges that meet this fall, and at Amazon warehouses, big box stores, and at workplaces. This disease is insidious and spreads easily. That’s why we need to continue to be careful.
“However,” Stetzer concluded, “articles like this create a false narrative concerning churches and places of worship, causing people that their reporting on religion can’t be trusted, and it enflames rather than informs.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Jair Ferreira Belafacce
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.