MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County churches have new freedom to decide when and how they want to reopen their doors.
The original "Back to Business" plan said congregations needed to be limited to 25% capacity for at least two weeks starting Monday.
But Tennessee Governor Bill Lee overrode that decision. He shared optional guidelines with the faith community that still encourages virtual worship, but says congregations could gather with up to 50% capacity.
In light of the governor’s orders, Bishop David Tally of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis issued a decree Friday that public masses will return May 16.
Bishop Tally said on the Catholic Diocese of Memphis Facebook page that he wanted to give priests time to prepare.
The church suspended public masses a month and half ago in response to the spread of COVID-19.
Public masses will return with new rules including not sharing the Chalice for holy communion, 6 foot physical distancing and no choirs since singing is an easy way to spread droplets.
Religious or large gatherings have been a concern for the medical community.
“Because that’s where we could see a spike, if we had a large congregation come together who were not social distancing appropriately that could lead to a serious cluster of cases and a spike in what we’re experiencing,” said John McCullers with UTHSC.
Some other religious leaders are taking a different approach to the governor’s orders.
“Nobody wants to see their parishioners more than I do. I’m just not willing to risk rushing back in at a time where infection rate is increasing,” said Rev. Earl Fisher, PhD of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Whitehaven.
He says his worship service will continue only online.
"So what I'm witnessing is escalating tension between the state and the local government orders and neither of them seem to be sensitive to the nuances of black communities and black congregations," said Fisher.
Nearly 70% of COVID-19 cases in Shelby County are African-Americans.
Fisher says he may not hold an in-person worship service until after the summer.
A spokesperson with the Memphis Islamic Center says they will meet this weekend to make a final decision on reopening their mosques.