Members of the vacation bible study group at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Eau Claire practice before gatherings at Wisconsin churches were banned by Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order. Many churches are conducting services via computer now, but some have proposed hosting Easter worship in church parking lots. (Contributed photo)
Members of the vacation bible study group at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Eau Claire practice before gatherings at Wisconsin churches were banned by Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order. Many churches are conducting services via computer now, but some have proposed hosting Easter worship in church parking lots. (Contributed photo)

Health officials urge adherence to Safer at Home, despite Evers’ relaxing restrictions

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday small gatherings and drive-up church services are allowable under his “Safer at Home” order, but some public health officials believe such worship assemblies could further the spread of COVID-19 at a time when they say it is especially important that people stay home as much as possible. 

Health department directors in some Wisconsin counties said they have requested that religious leaders in their communities not allow parking lot services or gatherings in churches because of concerns about spreading the virus. Keeping people from each other this week and the next couple is especially important to limit a peak of COVID-19 cases expected in Wisconsin in late April, they said.

“I worry that with the election and now with Easter, we are going to see a spike in (COVID-19) cases,” Angela Weideman, Chippewa County Health Department director, said Friday, two days before Easter. 

Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, said some Eau Claire-area churches and religious groups had organized worship services and other activities that would involve people gathering together. The health department updated religious leaders about Evers’ position but encouraged them not to allow those activities anyway.

“We are understanding that it’s the new guidance that this is allowable,” Giese said. “But our communication to local pastors and leaders is to please not do it.”  

Evers’ position Thursday is a change from previous direction from the state Department of Health Services regarding religious gatherings, health department directors said. As of Thursday, the order now allows parking lot services, with people “staying in cars, avoiding person-to-person contact,” according to a news release issued by Evers’ office.

Weideman and Polk County Health Department Director Brian Kaczmarski expressed frustration at Evers’ directive after they said they were told the previous day by the state Department of Health Services that parking lot gatherings would not be allowed. 

“The frustrating part is the shifting guidance,” Kaczmarski said. “We’re the ones left having to explain the mixed messaging.”  

The governor’s clarification letter regarding drive-up services arrived a few hours after the conservative legal group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sent Evers a letter arguing that the “Safer at Home” order, in effect until April 24, does not prohibit vehicles congregating in a parking lot, as long as people remain in their vehicles. 

Giese, Kaczmarski and Weideman said they understand the importance of Easter to many, and that people want to gather for the holiday. But they urged them to remain home and worship with those in their household, noting they worry people gathering to worship might be tempted to have personal contact.

“People that are walking car to car distributing Communion or taking a collection … that’s a close contact,” Giese said. “The impulse we all have when we see someone we know and love is to get them a big hug … the risk is too great.” 

The issue of church gatherings is gaining attention in other parts of the United States. On Thursday a Virginia judge rejected a lawsuit that sought a religious exemption to Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order requiring people to stay home because of COVID-19 concerns. 

‘Safer’ debate

Since the “Safer at Home” order was issued last month, church buildings have been empty as congregation members stuck at home have gathered virtually, using technology to view services and to participate in meetings.

The risks associated with allowing a drive-up church service are too great to allow it, said Kary Jonas, pastor at Living Hope Lutheran Church in the Trempealeau County village of Ettrick. The urge for people to mingle, and thereby possibly spread COVID-19, would be too likely to occur in such a setting, she said. 

“If my church hosted a drive-up, I could see the people getting out of the cars and conversing,” she said. “Safer at Home means loving one’s neighbor as oneself.”

Kary Jonas, pastor at Living Hope Lutheran Church in the Trempealeau County village of Ettrick. (Contributed photo)

David Huber, pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ, is among numerous Eau Claire church leaders who said they oppose drive-up church services during the “Safer at Home” order by Gov. Tony Evers that will last until at least April 24. Heads of churches must set an example to their congregations that people’s safety is of paramount importance amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it poses terrible risks to people and shows poor leadership from the pastors for them to suggest that “Safer at Home” doesn’t apply if it’s for church,” Huber said.

However, not everyone has a problem with drive-up services. Roger Ripplinger and others attended church via their vehicles from the parking lot of Faith Evangelical Free Church in Fall Creek in eastern Eau Claire County on Sunday. 

Attendees remained in their vehicles during the service, he said, and enjoyed a sense of community as they listened to the sermon along with musical numbers. 

“We could see everyone. Just no hugs,” he said, noting he will attend a drive-up service on Easter. 

Roger Ripplinger took in a worship service from inside his vehicle while parked in the parking lot at Faith Evangelical Free Church in Fall Creek last Sunday. (Photo by Roger Ripplinger)

Wausau resident Mary Evans said she is grateful Evers decided to allow drive-up services. As long as people remain in their vehicles, she said she backs the idea of allowing congregations to gather as best they can. 

“Of course I don’t want to see any more spread of the virus,” she said. “But this is Easter. As long as we can do it safely, we should be allowed to be together.”

Lauren Lierman said she understands that sentiment. Lierman, who lives in Altoona, misses gathering with her church friends at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Eau Claire and looks forward to the day when that is once again possible. But the risk of furthering the spread of COVID-19 is too great to allow such assemblies, she said.

“Would it be great to be with the rest of my church community on Easter? Absolutely,” she said. “But I don’t feel that being in a car is any different than being in my house. My cravings for the traditional Easter experience will not be satiated by sitting outside a building in a car.”