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U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar defended on Sunday President Trump’s demand that governors allow churches and other houses of worship to reopen this weekend even though some areas remain under coronavirus lockdown.
Speaking during an interview on “Sunday Morning Futures,” Azar said he believes that as long as a church is “taking appropriate precautions” they should be able to hold in-person services.
“As long as your church is taking appropriate precautions and we put out guidance to those to that effect,” Azar said. “You sign up so that they don't get overcrowded. You get screened for temperature as well as symptoms as you come in, you socially distance among family units in the church.”
He added: “The church has been sanitized by the cleaning workers there so we can get back to work, back to school and back to worship in safe ways because of President Trump's historic response here.”
Trump threatened Friday to “override” governors who defy him, but it was unclear what authority he has to do so.
“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now — for this weekend," Trump said at a hastily arranged press conference at the White House. Asked what authority Trump might have to supersede governors, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she wouldn't answer a theoretical question.
Trump has been pushing for the country to reopen as he tries to reverse an economic free fall playing out months before he faces reelection. White evangelical Christians have been among the president's most loyal supporters, and the White House has been careful to attend to their concerns throughout the crisis.
Following Trump's announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.
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 remain-at-home orders.
In-person religious services have been vectors for transmission of the virus. A person who attended a Mother’s Day service at a church in Northern California that defied the governor’s closure orders later tested positive, exposing more than 180 churchgoers. And a choir practice at a church in Washington state was labeled by the CDC as an early “superspreading" event.
But Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and said he was “identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services.”
“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."
“These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united,” he added.
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said faith leaders should be in touch with 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.