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‘We are in a very, very good place:’ In-person religious services could safely resume in Orange County, experts say

Orange County mayor hosts town hall with local faith leaders

Medical personnel help residents sign in for a COVID-19 test at the Bethany Baptist Church, Wednesday, May 13, 2020, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. Churches in low income communities across New York are offering COVID-19 testing to residents in conjunction with New York State and Northwell Health. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Medical personnel help residents sign in for a COVID-19 test at the Bethany Baptist Church, Wednesday, May 13, 2020, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. Churches in low income communities across New York are offering COVID-19 testing to residents in conjunction with New York State and Northwell Health. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – During a virtual town hall hosted by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, Florida Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Raul Pino said he thought in-person religious services could safely resume if congregation members took the appropriate precautions.

The virtual town hall, moderated by Demings and Pastor Jim Coffin, served to unite the religious community, spanning all faiths, in the Orange County region.

It remains unclear as to when churches will be able to once again operate in a full capacity under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ phased reopening plan, and religious leaders used the town-hall as a forum to discuss plans once guidelines for houses of worship becomes clear.

“It is at this point, it has not been specifically defined when Gov. DeSantis issued his executive order that took effect at 12:01 a.m. on May 4, during that order he did not specifically indicate how long phase one [would last],” Demings said.

[RELATED: Gov. Ron DeSantis to make announcement about Florida gyms reopening Friday]

Pino said the trends in COVID-19 infections in Orange County showed promising improvements, but still warranted social distancing practices, the wearing of face masks and the maintenance of proper hygiene.

“In general the county is in a good position - we are in a very, very good position - and the future is in our control,” Pino said. “Our community has been amazing and that is probably why we have seen so many good results in our county. We probably have one of the largest counties in Florida and we are the one who is performing that best, and I am proud to say that. The data continues to trend in the right direction, we don’t see any major changes and next week will be critical as we enter the beginning of the third week since we opened. My assessment is that we are moving in the right direction.”

When asked by Roderick Zak, pastor at Rejoice in the Lord Ministries, about how religious institutions are different than other places of gathering in terms of mitigating COVID-19 exposure risk, Pino said that places of worship experience a great deal of physical closeness which could lead to transmission of disease.

“The space and the closeness of people, the touching, the sharing, a kiss, a hug, the singing next to each other without masks, emitting particles, and of course services are different across denominations so I’m being very general, and services across denominations may have different structures, but the reality is that the physical contact and the distancing is critical,” Pino said.

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However, Pino said he is confident that churchgoers and the like could safely go to their places of worship without the major risk of becoming ill if they do so responsibly while observing modifications.

“If we work to observe social distancing, if the places will be disinfected, if we wear masks, if we do not touch each other for the time being, some activity could resume if that is the wish of the denomination,” Pino said.

Pino went on to explain that aerosolized respiratory droplets containing the COVID-19 virus are one of the main concerns when looking at how the disease is transmitted.

“The virus is heavy … so the virus tends to drop quickly [from the air once areosolized] on to surfaces,” Pino said. “So the power of the particle and having that barrier on the face mask is going to decrease the number of the viral load that people are putting out into the environment. That’s why we talk about social distancing because [the coronavirus] is heavy, it doesn’t really travel that far, so 6 feet is safe enough that it will not reach you or other individuals.”

Demings closed the town hall by asking members to say an extra prayer for their communities as phased reopening continues. Although it remains unclear as to when places of worship may comfortably find their new mode of operation, Demings said local leaders have a great deal of responsibility to uphold the wishes and safety of those they represent.

“As a man of faith, I do believe in a higher calling and a higher power, so I would ask that all of you pray for your government leaders that they have the wisdom to make the right decisions on your behalf and that you continue to pray for the people in our great nation that is experiencing the pandemic,” Demings said. “And Lastly, I believe that as we reopen we have to restore some confidence in our citizens to feel comfortable reengaging in the public with the new normal to deal with the fears that they perhaps may have.”

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