President Donald Trump abruptly announced Friday that houses of worship like churches, synagogues and mosques are to be considered "essential" while calling on governors to open them as early as this weekend.
"Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship, it's not right," Trump said during a short statement at the White House. "So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential. I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now.
"The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend. If they don't do it I will override the governors. In America we need more prayer, not less."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be releasing detailed safety recommendations for houses of worship that are reopening. The since-released guidance for communities of faith includes encouraging congregants and staff to social distance, wear face coverings, practice good hand hygiene and limit the sharing of worship materials.
"The information offered is non-binding public health guidance for consideration only; it is not meant to regulate or prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities in houses of worship. Any decision to modify specific religious rites, rituals, and services should be made by religious leaders," the CDC wrote.
McEnany did not specify the exact legal power that Trump would have to override governors' orders to keep houses of worship closed, just saying Trump would "strongly encourage every governor to allow their churches to reopen."
Dr. Deborah Birx from the White House's coronavirus task force also briefly addressed Trump's statement about houses of worship reopening immediately.
"I think each one of the leaders of the faith community should be in touch with their local health department so that they can communicate with their congregants," Birx said at the press conference.
She also suggested maintaining the social distancing policy that has been continually reinforced by health experts.
"There is a way to social distance in places of worship," she said. "I think what we're trying to say with the CDC guidance is there's a way for us to work together to have social distancing and safety for people so that we decrease the amount of exposure that anyone would have to an asymptomatic (carrier)."
Birx suggested that any churchgoers who may have higher risk factors like age or underlying conditions might want to wait a week to return to a house of worship.
Reopening churches has become a divisive topic as health officials continue to warn against large gatherings of people indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A Mississippi church that was fighting coronavirus restrictions against in-person services was burned down on Wednesday and investigators found graffiti in the church parking lot that read, “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits."
In Minnesota, the state's Catholic bishops and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod announced earlier this week that they would not follow the governor's safety restrictions for houses of worship, which call for limiting attendance to 10 people, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The Catholic and Lutheran groups said they were going to allow their churches to be filled to one-third capacity starting Tuesday.