By DAVID BILLER and CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN | May 22, 2020 at 2:40 AM EDT – Updated May 22 at 4:04 PM
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Friday that he has deemed churches and other houses of worship “essential” and called on governors across the country to allow them to reopen this weekend, even as some parts of the nation remain under coronavirus lockdown.
“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House.
Despite the threat of further spreading the virus. Trump said that, “governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend.” And he warned that if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.
The dictate comes as Trump has been pushing for the country to reopen as he tries to stop an economic free fall months before he faces reelection. White evangelical Christians have been among the most loyal members of the president’s base, and the White House has been careful to attend to religious communities’ concerns over the course of the crisis, including holding numerous conference calls with them.
Following Trump’s announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith that include taking steps to limit the size of gatherings and considering holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.
“It is safe to reopen your churches if you do so in accordance with the guidelines,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
Public health agencies have generally advised people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and encouraged Americans to remain 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from others when possible. Some parts of the country remain under some version of a lockdown, including Washington, D.C.
Trump stressed the importance of churches in many communities and took issue with other businesses and services that have been allowed to continue to operate.
“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.”
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“These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united,” he added.
In-person religious services have been vectors of transmission of the virus. A person who attended a religious service on Mother’s Day at a church in Northern California that defied the governor’s orders against reopening later tested positive for the coronavirus, exposing more than 180 churchgoers.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House’s coronavirus task force, said that faith community leaders should be in touch with their 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.
A person familiar with the White House’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said Trump had called the news conference, which had not been on his public schedule, because he wanted to be the face of church reopenings, knowing how well it would play with his base.
Churches around the country have filed legal challenges to the 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 welcomed the 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 command 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.”
The CDC more than a month ago sent the Trump administration documents the agency had drafted outlining specific steps various kinds of organizations could follow as they work to reopen safely.
The administration first shelved the documents. Eventually, it released guidance for six other types of organizations, but not houses of worship. A Trump administration official had said there were concerns about the propriety of the government interfering with the operation of places of worship.
Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, argued that “protections against religious discrimination aren’t suspended during an emergency.”
Then Trump abruptly reversed course Thursday.
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“I said, ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said at a Ford Motor Co. plant repurposed to make ventilators in Michigan. “And they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We’ve got to get our churches open.”
The coronavirus pandemic accelerated across Latin America on Friday, bringing a surge of new infections and deaths, even as curves flattened and reopening was underway in much of Europe, Asia and the United States.
The region’s two largest nations — Mexico and Brazil — reported record counts of new cases and deaths almost daily this week, fueling criticism of their presidents, who have slow-walked shutdowns in attempts to limit economic damage.
Brazil reported more than 20,000 deaths and 300,000 confirmed cases, making it the third worst-hit country in the world by official counts. Experts consider both numbers undercounts due to the widespread lack of testing.
The virus “does not forgive. It does not choose race or if you are rich or poor, black or white. It’s a cruel disease,” Bruno Almeida de Mello, a 24-year-old Uber driver, said at his 66-year-old grandmother’s burial in Rio de Janeiro.
Infections rose and intensive-care units were also swamped in Peru, Chile and Ecuador, countries lauded for imposing early and aggressive business shutdowns and quarantines. Many experts said the rising death toll across Latin America showed the limits of government action in a region where millions labor in informal jobs and many police forces are weak or corrupt and unable to enforce restrictions.
Many governments — even those where the virus is still on the rise — say they must shift their focus to saving jobs that are vanishing as quickly as the disease can spread. In the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies, unemployment is soaring.
The Federal Reserve chairman has estimated that as many as 1 in 4 Americans could be jobless, while in China analysts estimate around a third of the urban workforce is unemployed.
Meanwhile, the virus is roaring through countries ill-equipped to handle the pandemic, which many scientists fear will seed the embers of a second global wave of infections.
India saw its biggest single-day spike since the pandemic began, and Pakistan and Russia recorded their highest death tolls. Most new Indian cases are in Bihar, where thousands returned home from jobs in the cities. For over a month, some walked among crowds for hundreds of miles.
Back in Brazil, Vandelma Rosa had all the virus’ symptoms, but her death certificate reads “suspected of COVID-19,” according to her grandson, because her hospital lacked tests to confirm. That means her passing did not figure into the death toll, which marked its biggest single-day increase Thursday: 1,181.
President Jair Bolsonaro has scoffed at the seriousness of the virus and actively campaigned against state governors’ attempts to impose limits on citizens’ movements and commerce.
Bolsonaro fired his first health minister for siding against him in backing governors’ stay-at-home recommendations and restrictions on activity. His second minister resigned about a month later after openly disagreeing with Bolsonaro about chloroquine, the predecessor of the anti-malarial often touted by U.S. President Donald Trump as a viable coronavirus treatment.
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“In Rio de Janeiro, you see people going out normally, without a mask, in some neighborhoods. They aren’t believing in this disease. And it’s sad that in other countries people believe, but not here,” de Mello said. “You need to lose someone in your family to be able to believe.”
On Thursday, opposition lawmakers and other detractors protested in front of Congress in the capital, Brasilia. They called for Bolsonaro’s impeachment, alleging criminal mishandling of virus response. Two of them displayed a Brazilian flag, defaced with hundreds of tiny black crosses to represent the dead.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador downplayed the threat the virus posed for weeks as he continued to travel the country after Mexico’s first confirmed case. He let his health advisers take the lead on the crisis, but continued insisting that Mexico was different, that its strong family bonds and work ethic would pull it through.
Mexico passed 6,000 confirmed deaths on Wednesday. The country has recently reported more than 400 deaths a day, and new infections still have not peaked. Many deaths categorized as “atypical pneumonia” are suspected of being COVID-19 but not included in the official count. The true count may be several times higher.
Armando Sepulveda, manager of San Cristobal Mauseleum in the massive Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec, said his burial and cremation business has doubled in recent weeks.
“The crematoriums are saturated,” Sepulveda said Thursday. “All of the ovens don’t have that capacity.” Families scour the city looking for funeral services that can handle their dead “in desperation,” because the hospitals cannot hold the dead for long, he said.
The Mexican government has shifted its attention to reactivating the economy.
Mining, construction and parts of the North American automotive supply chain were allowed to resume operations this week, but analysts predict a massive economic contraction in an economy that had already entered a technical recession before the pandemic.
The pandemic reaches from Latin America’s mega-cities deep into the Amazon jungle.
The Colombian town of Leticia, which lies along the Amazon River at the border of Brazil and Peru, has nearly 1,300 cases. Residents are reeling from both the illness and a sudden loss of income, much of which came from tourism. Families have begun placing red cloth flags outside humble homes with tin roofs to show they are going hungry.
Authorities in Colombia have pointed a finger at Brazil to explain the sudden rise in infections there, and President Iván Duque has imposed strict measures aimed at keeping cases out, including militarizing the border. But with many informal crossing points, it is nearly impossible to completely seal Colombia off.
In Chile, more than 90% of intensive care beds were full last week in the capital, Santiago, where the main cemetery dug 1,000 emergency graves to prepare for a wave of deaths despite a strict, early quarantine. Ecuador’s government declared a 2 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew in March, among other measures, but cases have swamped medical and mortuary services in the city of Guayaquil and, now, in the capital, Quito.
Hundreds of people can be seen violating the curfew daily in Ecuadorian cities, many selling goods on the streets to earn enough to buy food.
Other rule-breakers aren’t needy. A doctor treating coronavirus in a hospital in northern Quito said he had treated members of a family who threw a Mother’s Day barbeque despite the restrictions. The family’s mother and her brother died of coronavirus, and seven relatives are hospitalized. The doctor spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Peru has 2.5 intensive-care beds per 100,000 people, one quarter of the global standard. With almost 109,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,100 dead as of Thursday night, Peruvian media showed images of patients slumped in wheelchairs receiving oxygen. Doctors say most patients are shopkeepers, taxi drivers or street vendors.
Sherman reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker in Washington; Franklin Briceño in Lima, Peru; Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador; Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile; and Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed.
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