WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday labeled churches and other houses of worship as "essential" and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen this weekend even though some areas remain under coronavirus lockdown.
The president threatened to "override" governors who defy him, but it was unclear what authority he has to do so.
"Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now — for this weekend," Trump said at a hastily arranged press conference at the White House. Asked what authority Trump might have to supersede governors, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she wouldn't answer a theoretical question.
Trump has been pushing for the country to reopen as he tries to reverse an economic free fall playing out months before he faces reelection. White evangelical Christians have been among the president's most loyal supporters, and the White House has been careful to attend to their concerns throughout the crisis.
Following Trump's announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.
Public health agencies have generally advised people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and encouraged Americans to remain 6 feet away from others when possible. Some parts of the country remain under some version of remain-at-home orders.
In-person religious services have been vectors for transmission of the virus. A person who attended a Mother's Day service at a church in Northern California that defied the governor's closure orders later tested positive, exposing more than 180 churchgoers. And a choir practice at a church in Washington state was labeled by the CDC as an early "superspreading" event.
But Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and said he was "identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services."
"Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential" but not churches, he said. "It's not right. So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential."
"These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united," he added.
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said faith leaders should be in touch with local health departments and can take steps to mitigate risks, including making sure those who are at high risk of severe complications remain protected.
"There's a way for us to work together to have social distancing and safety for people so we decrease the amount of exposure that anyone would have to an asymptomatic," she said.
Churches around the country have filed legal challenges opposing virus closures. In Minnesota, after Democratic Gov. Tim Walz this week declined to lift restrictions on churches, Roman Catholic and some Lutheran leaders said they would defy his ban and resume worship services. They called the restrictions unconstitutional and unfair since restaurants, malls and bars were allowed limited reopening.
Some hailed the president's move, including Kelly Shackelford, president of the conservative First Liberty Institute.
"The discrimination that has been occurring against churches and houses of worship has been shocking," he said in a statement. "Americans are going to malls and restaurants. They need to be able to go to their houses of worship."
But Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, said it was "completely irresponsible" for Trump to call for a mass reopening of houses of worship.
"Faith is essential and community is necessary; however, neither requires endangering the people who seek to participate in them," he said. "The virus does not discriminate between types of gatherings, and neither should the president."
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, made clear that churches and other houses of worship will not resume in-person services in her state until at least next weekend and said she was skeptical Trump had the authority to impose such a requirement.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said he would review the federal guidance, while maintaining a decision rests with him.
In other news:
n Public health officials are warning Americans to follow social distancing and other measures that aim to stop the spread of the coronavirus as they head into the long Memorial Day weekend with millions of others emerging from lockdowns to celebrate the holiday at beaches and cookouts.
The three-day weekend begins even as the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating across Latin America, Russia, India and Pakistan. So far, number of cases are flattening elsewhere as businesses start to reopen in much of Europe, Asia and the United States.
India saw its biggest single-day spike since the pandemic began, and Pakistan and Russia recorded their highest death tolls. Even so, many governments say they need to shift their focus to saving jobs.
In the United States and China, the world's two largest economies, the unemployment numbers are staggering. The Federal Reserve chairman has estimated that 25% of Americans could be jobless by June, while in China analysts estimate about a third of the urban workforce is unemployed.
- New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio released new guidelines to help determine when to loosen restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic. However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it will be up to the state to make those decisions.
- British researchers testing an experimental vaccine against COVID-19 are advancing to the next phase and hope to immunize more than 10,000 people. The announcement comes as Chinese scientists report encouraging signs from first-step safety tests of a similar possible vaccine.
- The coronavirus is certain to put a damper on one of the biggest Muslim holidays of the year set to begin this weekend. People usually celebrate the three-day Eid al-Fitr by traveling, visiting family and gathering for lavish meals — all of which will be largely prohibited as authorities try to prevent new outbreaks. The holiday marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
- The leader of Tanzania says his country has defeated the coronavirus through prayer. Meanwhile, the international community openly worries that President John Magufuli is hiding the pandemic's true scale.