Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Courtesy of Governor Gretchen Whitmer's Office.

By exempting “places of religious worship” from the statewide ban on large gatherings, the governor is ensuring the virus will continue to spread. Jews and all other faiths should stay home.

Last week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer followed the guidelines of public health experts across the globe and issued a statewide ban on all gatherings of 50 or more people, in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. It was a necessary step, and one of many responsible decisions the governor has made to keep the state sheltered and safe since this crisis began.

But a few days later, she made a significant exception: for all “places of religious worship.” This means that no synagogue, church, mosque or other house of worship will be penalized with a misdemeanor charge for continuing to hold regular physical services. They will be treated in the same category as “essential” services like health care centers and mass transit.

The move was praised by Michigan’s Republican Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, who wrote on Facebook, “People have a God-given right to assemble and worship.” On Sunday March 22, Whitmer told Fox News that she had made the exemption at the behest of state Republicans, although she herself strongly discourages such gatherings.

Nevertheless, including language that explicitly exempts houses of worship from oversight during this pandemic is a dangerous and troubling precedent, and as a publication that covers a significant population of Michigan religious life, the Detroit Jewish News is strongly opposed to this action from the state.

Religious institutions, like synagogues, are precisely the environment in which the coronavirus is most poised to spread like wildfire through our community. They are a space shared by multiple generations, by the sick and healthy alike. They are a space in which, no matter the precautions taken, there is significantly greater risk for the contaminant to spread via shared surfaces like pews, prayer books, tzedakah boxes and leaflets. Pandemics do not wait politely outside the door until prayers have concluded.

Michigan’s Jewish institutions already understand this. They have been a proactive, measured voice of reason during the coronavirus pandemic. Every major congregation in the Metro Detroit area, across every denomination from Reform to Orthodox, has shut their doors and, when possible, moved Shabbat services and all other community programming to online platforms such as Zoom. They have taken the steps to do this because our community leaders recognize that the health and safety of their congregants takes priority over their ability to gather under one roof. For the state to now walk back its necessary regulations for communities like ours is nonsensical, places an unnecessary onus on our congregations and only serves to cloud the already murky waters of misinformation around the virus.

We know it has not been easy to adjust. For observant Jews, social distancing is not an adequate means of fulfilling Sabbath obligations. A minyan requires 10 people to congregate in the same physical space, and use of technological tools such as livestreaming is prohibited on Shabbat. But we must think of our choice to stay at home as a mitzvah: “Pikuach nefesh,” to save a life, as Temple Israel Rabbi Jen Lader put it in a story we will publish later this week. By praying alone instead of together, we are helping to protect the most vulnerable members of our community. And we remain together in spirit. Every rabbinical figure in the region who has issued similar congregant guidelines is in agreement on this point.

Our Constitutional right to worship freely as Americans can still be exercised safely from home without putting others at unnecessary risk. At this stage in the pandemic, when we continue to face inadequate coronavirus testing and our state’s hospitals are badly straining to treat the already-confirmed patients, the last thing we want to do is inadvertently create new cases. The governor’s office knows this very well; it’s why Whitmer issued a stay-in-place order for the entire state today. What good would such an order be if people continued to gather in their places of worship every weekend? We must listen to the health and science experts and remain in isolation as much as possible in order to have a fighting chance at containing this threat.

Therefore, we encourage all Detroit-area congregations to continue to shut their doors and keep congregants safely at home, and we implore Gov. Whitmer to rethink this dangerous and neglectful policy.


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