POLITICAL partisanship by leaders in the United States has cost thousands of lives in the battle against coronavirus, the Bishop of Texas, the Rt Revd Andy Doyle, has said.
Texas is one of the worst-affected states in the US, with new cases reaching more than 10,000 in one day last week.
Bishop Doyle attacked the “politicisation of mask-wearing and reopening”, and said that the Church was continuing to battle “the misinformation of political partisanship”, as most Episcopal churches stayed closed and offered online worship.
“The Governor of Texas, like others, politicised mask-wearing and reopening against stricter health protocols. Now that there is a community spread, he is backtracking and trying to put that back in the box. That is most unfortunate: stricter health protocols would have saved thousands of lives from the get go.
“Public officials who politicised these protocols have really hurt people, and some have died.”
Some churches had moved to reopen cautiously last month, but in most urban areas, churches remain closed. In rural areas, some churches have reopened with strict protocols in place, including mask-wearing.
Bishop Doyle said: “We were in the process of opening congregations into a phased approach when the most recent wave hit. We truly had barely begun. The diocese is large, though, and we have congregations in counties with little or no Covid community spread.
“There is fear, of course — especially in the cities. We have clergy and parishioners who have had, and are continuing to suffer from, Covid.”
Texas is at the heart of a huge spike in cases over the past two weeks. One in five new cases of the virus around the world this week comes from just three US states: Texas, Florida, and California. So far, 138,000 people have died in the US from the virus, and 3.5 million people have been infected.
The Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, performed a U-turn to mandate mask-wearing last week, warning that if people did not follow the rule, then a strict lockdown would be imposed on the state.
Bishop Doyle praised congregations for serving their communities during lockdown, and, in particular, some of his clergy who are taking part in vaccine trials.
“We have been helping the poor through donations of food and money to keep those hardest hit by the economic downturn from eviction and food scarcity. Churches are doing food drives, blood drives, and some parts of our organisation are helping with medical and health assistance. Members all over the diocese have worked to provide free masks for people, too — thousands of masks.
“We are eager to regather for worship together and the eucharist. In the mean time, we are joining the wider population in safety and caring for the most vulnerable among us. I am very proud of our people and our clergy. Amidst a very difficult time, they are leading and being good stewards.”
Two clergy and one clergy spouse had volunteered for vaccine trials, he said.
Churches have been blamed in some quarters for local spikes in cases in parts of the US, although the confirmed number of cases linked to churches is small: about 650 cases are linked to 40 churches. Some of those cases are in churches that refused to close, while others are in churches that reopened under strict social-distancing regulations.
The New York Times reported that the Calvary Chapel of San Antonio, in Texas, had reported 50 cases after it reopened in May, despite following the “letter of the law”. Pastor Ron Arbaugh said that he now regretted saying that members of the congregation could hug one another again.
“In retrospect, I would have said: ‘Just maintain that distance,’” he told the paper. “In a spiritual environment, we had people who were away from fellowship for so long and in isolation. They were hurting. We just got to a point where we thought, we need to have normal church services.”