ST. PAUL — President Donald Trump on Friday, May 22, called on state governors to allow churches, mosques and synagogues to reopen for in-person services beginning this weekend.
Speaking to White House reporters Friday afternoon, Trump said all places of worship should be considered essential service providers during the pandemic and threatened to "override" governors who decline to lift church restrictions. Trump later walked back the comment and said it would be up to state leaders to set restrictions.
"Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship," Trump said. "It's not right, so I'm correcting this injustice."
Trump said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be issuing guidance to faith communities on how to safely hold worship services during the pandemic. Church leaders aiming to reopen in Minnesota previously said they were structuring their plans on existing CDC guidance.
The comments came as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Friday was meeting with faith leaders about how to loosen restrictions. Walz came under fire earlier in the week when he announced he would allow restaurants and bars to serve as many as 50 in an outdoor setting, but kept the cap on indoor worship services at 10.
Leaders of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on Wednesday announced they would reopen next week with or without the state’s approval.
Walz and state health officials said they were reluctant to allow larger church services earlier in the week because of the potentially heightened risks of bringing together parishioners who could have heightened risks of developing severe symptoms of COVID-19. And they said a hallmark of many worship ceremonies — singing — had been associated with increased spread of the illness in choirs.
“The data is pretty darn clear that talking and loud talking and singing are pretty important transmission risks, especially in close quarters,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
Malcolm and a spokesman for Walz said the governor remained in conversations with leaders about protocols for allowing in-person services under new CDC guidelines.
"The governor's top priority continues to be the health and safety of Minnesotans, and he looks forward to reviewing the new CDC guidance to better understand what this means for places of worship in Minnesota," Teddy Tschann, Walz's spokesman, said Friday.
Minnesota Senate Republicans on Friday applauded the president's move to push for the reopening of churches, saying on Twitter that Trump's guidance overrode Walz's designation of houses of worship as nonessential under the state's stay-at-home order. It wasn't immediately clear that Trump had the authority to issue orders that contradicted state directives.
A White House spokeswoman declined to specify whether the president had the authority to override governors' executive orders.
COVID-19 deaths continue to climb
The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday, May 22, reported that 33 more Minnesotans died from the coronavirus and its complications, the highest one-day total reported to date, and 813 more were sickened with the illness.
The state continues to get closer to early modeling projections that put the peak daily death rate at nearly 50 deaths a day. State health officials have said the illness is expected to peak sometime between late June and early August.
In total, 180,971 have been tested for the illness and 534 were hospitalized Friday with 233 in intensive care units. Another 12,696 had had the disease and were able to exit isolation.
And the growing number of positive tests in the Minneapolis area drew attention from the White House. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, on Friday noted that Minneapolis by name as an area with the heightened rate of positive COVID-19 results.
State health officials said they received calls from CDC and White House officials about the ranking and they urged Minnesotans to continue staying home if they felt sick and seek COVID-19 testing if they develop symptoms of the illness.
“We are concerned,” State Epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said.”We all have a responsibility to work together to really try to keep tabs on this virus.”
In particular, disparate growth in cases among black Minnesotans, who comprise 6% of the state's population but now represented 23% of COVID-19 cases, raised concerns for state health officials.
Walz on Friday announced the state would roll out free testing in six communities around the state over the weekend and would be able to assess as many as 6,000. And they committed to making it easier for Minnesotans to access tests moving forward.
Twenty-five of the 33 of those whose deaths were reported Friday were residents of long-term care or assisted living facilities. Anoka, Dakota, Goodhue, Hennepin, Ramsey, Stearns, Washington and Wright counties reported residents who died due to the illness.
Forum News Service reporter Matthew Guerry contributed to this story.
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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.