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In early July 2020, the California Department of Public Health issued industry guidance for places of worship operating during the COVID-19 coronavirus disease pandemic in light of a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
Among several suggestions for how places of worship can encourage safer social distancing, an early version of the guidance stated that religious sites must “discontinue singing and chanting activities.” A subsequent version dated July 6 specified that indoor singing should be discontinued.
The reasoning given by the state’s public health department for the new guidance was as follows:
Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations. In particular, activities such as singing and chanting negate the risk reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.
A notable example of a “super-spreading event” of COVID-19 occurred at a church choir rehearsal in Washington state, where 60 singers convened in Skagit County on March 10. Of those, 45 became ill with the virus and two died, despite attendees’ best efforts to remain socially distant from each other. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has become a political wedge issue in the the country’s ongoing culture wars. Right-leaning media outlets seized on these new guidelines, writing headlines like, “Outrage after California bans singing in churches amid coronavirus pandemic,” and also, “California’s Governor Forbids Christians From Singing in Church Houses.”
These headlines are misleading.
The state has no penalty for violating this guidance, so suggesting the state “forbids” any group from singing is an exaggeration. A spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health told us in an email, “Californians are being encouraged to be responsible as the guidance is used to educate the public without the threat of fines and citations as the first course of action.”
Also, the guidance doesn’t apply to Christian churches alone, it applies to all “places of worship and providers of religious services and cultural ceremonies,” meaning any faith or cultural institution is equally affected.
Nevertheless, headlines that highlighted the fact that Christian church congregations would be affected prompted a spate of internet outrage and misleading claims that Christians were being unfairly singled out. For example:
Per the Los Angeles Times, the Independence Day holiday “marked the 15th consecutive day that California tallied record hospitalization numbers of confirmed coronavirus patients. On Saturday, the state recorded 5,669 patients with confirmed coronavirus infections in California hospitals — an increase of 62% over the previous two weeks.”