One of Greater Cincinnati's largest churches will continue to hold services despite the intensifying crisis around the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has issued a number of orders restricting large gatherings, including an order instructing Ohioans to stay at home except to get food, exercise, medical care or other essentials that went into effect at 11:59 p.m. March 23.
While those orders exempt religious functions, many churches have temporarily closed or moved to online services.
Solid Rock Church near Lebanon in Butler County, however, is standing firm and keeping its doors open — though it says it isn't pressuring anyone to come and also offers live-streaming services.
"We at Solid Rock Church share everyone’s concern to help keep people safe," a statement from the church says. "The First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees freedom concerning religion, expression, and assembly. It specifically forbids congress from restricting an individual’s religious practices. Therefore, the government ban on large gatherings does not apply to religious worship."
"There is no pressure from Solid Rock Church to require anyone to come to our services," the statement continues. "We are respectful of every individual’s right to choose either to come to our service or to watch online. We do believe that it is important for our doors to remain open for whomever to come to worship and pray during this time of great challenge in our country."
Solid Rock has gotten both praise and criticism for the move, including thousands of mostly negative reactions on a March 22 Facebook post announcing it would hold 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. services that day.
"This is the church where myself and my husband were saved at, married at, and my children dedicated at," a Facebook user under the name Victoria Martz wrote on Solid Rock's page. "We left years ago but have been following on FB. I HAD a desire to return until this. This makes me very sad that they are risking people’s lives. It’s NOT about having fear it’s about having wisdom from God. As a RN I can tell you this is reckless."
But others defended the church's decision.
"David was bold full of faith," another Facebook user going by Kevin Collins replied. "We should be coming together praying for one another."
A live-stream of the service showed the pews at Solid Rock's Butler County location weren't filled, but did show congregants shaking hands and Solid Rock pastor Rev. Lawrence Bishop II exhorting those who were protesting the church's continued in-person services to direct their ire at Planned Parenthood instead, according to media reports.
Other churches have reacted differently, including the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which has ordered a temporary suspension of all in-person masses at local Catholic churches until at least Easter. Those masses will be live-streamed. Other large churches in Butler County, including Liberty Heights Church in Lebanon, have ceased in-person gathering for now. That church is encouraging congregants to join online services.
Though his office hasn't issued an outright ban on congregating for religious purposes, DeWine himself has encouraged faith communities to find other ways to worship.
"When you’re coming together, that’s dangerous," DeWine said during the March 22 announcement of his stay at home order. "I would implore ministers, priests, rabbis, think about your congregation. Catholic bishops in Ohio have closed all public services. Coming together in a large group is not a good idea. It is very, very dangerous.”
Coronaviruses are a broad category of virus that cause the common cold, among other illnesses. COVID-19 is what scientists call a new, or "novel" form of the virus — one for which humans haven't developed antibodies and one which epidemiologists do not yet know how to combat.
UC Health's Dr. Dustin J. Calhoun told attendees at a March 10 summit in Cincinnati that 80 percent of people infected will experience a mild cold. The majority who experience more severe symptoms will also recover. At this early stage, pregnant women and children seem to be less vulnerable, Calhoun said.
Those most at risk are the elderly — mortality rates for those above 70 shoot up to 8 percent or higher, some studies suggest, while those under 40 have an estimated mortality rate of about .2 percent so far.
To date, Ohio has confirmed 442 cases of COVID-19 in the state — an enormous increase from its first cases early in the month. Six people in Ohio have died of the illness and 104 cases have led to hospitalization.
As of yesterday, Butler County had confirmed 17 cases of the illness.