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Mississippi sets guidelines on restarting in-person worship

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday issued guidelines for churches and other places of worship to reopen for in-person services during the coronavirus pandemic, with an emphasis on keeping spaces clean and maintaining distance between people.

The Republican governor never shut down in-person worship, saying he does not think the government has the power to do so. But he has strongly encouraged people to worship in their homes through online services or other methods. He said he thinks congregations will ease into the return of in-person services.

Among the suggestions in the eight pages of guidelines: Have multiple services rather than a single service so people will have a chance to spread out in a sanctuary; encourage people to wear masks that cover the mouth and nose, even during worship; discourage hugging and handshakes; minimize the sharing of food and drinks; replace choirs with solo singers.

“I know that pastors want to protect their flock,” Reeves said.

Reeves said he and his family will continue to worship remotely, from the Governor’s Mansion.

City leaders in Greenville, Mississippi, briefly banned drive-up worship services in April, but backed down from that policy after facing freedom-of-religion lawsuits, including one in which U.S. Attorney General William Barr sided with a church that said the city was limiting constitutional rights.

Reeves said Tuesday that he could issue guidelines soon about reopening museums and other entertainment venues. His “safer at home” order is set to expire Monday. It says people should minimize public outings, and medically vulnerable people should remain home as much as possible.

State-regulated casinos are preparing to reopen on Thursday for the first time in two months, with social distancing and sanitation guidelines in place. Two casino resorts run by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians have not set dates for reopening, the president and CEO of Pearl River Resort, William “Sonny” Johnson, said in a news release Tuesday.

Both Reeves and the state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said people should wear masks in public to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

“It’s the right thing to do if you want to protect yourself, protect your family, and protect your community,” Dobbs said.

Even as houses of worship prepare to reopen, Reeves said it’s best not to have big weddings or funerals with people in confined spaces.

The state Health Department said Tuesday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — had at least 11,704 confirmed cases and 554 deaths from the coronavirus as of Monday evening. That was an increase of 272 cases and 27 deaths from the numbers reported a day earlier.

The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

The Health Department said Tuesday that at least 117,760 coronavirus tests had been conducted in Mississippi as of Monday. The department said at least 1,534 cases of the virus had been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 271 virus-related deaths in those facilities.

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