The New York Times

The New York Times 12 May 2020

Should Georgia Reopen? These Pastors Say No.


Churches in Albany, Ga., have been devastated by the coronavirus. As the state reopens, pastors are uniting to keep people home.

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… show captions ↓
Singing: “Oh, brother, I want you to keep on marchin’.
And one of these days, and one of these days,
you shall be free.”
Albany, Ga., became an epicenter for Covid-19
in April.
Hundreds of cases were traced to two funeral services,
and led to one of the highest death rates in the country.
“It was like a tornado that nobody prepared for.
Our churches weren’t prepared for it,
and before we knew it, people were dropping like flies.”
Pastor Orson Burton lost members of his congregation
in the surge, including his wife’s father.
“I can see the park.”
“You can see the park?”
“But we can’t go to the park.”
“It’s still not safe.”
“Because the whole world is sick.”
"Yeah, but we’re praying that the world gets better, right?”
On April 20, Gov. Brian Kemp
announced small businesses could
reopen less than three weeks after enforcing
a statewide shutdown.
For the Burtons, the restart is too soon.
“Already reopening opening is like a slap in the face.”
“We’ve seen how coronavirus can
hit our city, our family, our church and it
is not worth it.
The harsh reality is, there is no more business as usual.”
Pastor Burton is now on a mission
to prevent a second spike.
He’s appealing to people who feel
conflicted about returning to work.
“When the owner of the shop first told me,
we can go back, I was excited.
But that day, I thought about it in my head
like, it don’t feel right, you know?”
“It wasn’t enough time to prepare yourself.”
Pastor Burton is doing outreach like this just about
every day, with door-to-door visits and online sermons.
“My hope and my prayer is that you’re still
sheltering in place.
And we know that even during this pandemic,
God has given us resources.”
And he’s not alone.
“Set up the emojis.
Set up the praises.”
“Make some room in that living room.”
Church leaders across the city are telling members
to stay home through livestream
videos and drive-in services.
[car horns beeping]
The virus has hit black residents here
particularly hard.
Some 30 black and white church leaders
have united to remain closed, a decision they announced
in this joint statement.
“We believe that it is in the best
interest of our congregations and community
that we not resume meeting at this time.”
“The numbers did not indicate that it was
time for our city to open.”
“We knew that we just couldn’t jump right back
in like it was before and start gathering.”
“No matter if your congregation
is small or large — black, white, Hispanic —
doesn’t matter, we’re in the same storm.”
The pastors’ efforts have been reinforced
by the city mayor, who helped pass a resolution encouraging
residents to keep sheltering in place.
“I was a little concerned because I
was thinking the ministers are going to say,
we need to be back in church.
The overwhelming response was, we
are not going to resume worship services
in our sanctuary until we have a green light
from the medical community.”
Dr. James Black heads the emergency department
at Phoebe Putney Medical Memorial, the only hospital
in the Albany region.
“It’s been absolutely essential to have
the clergy supporting us.
They realized the importance of social distancing.”
While he has seen a decline in cases,
the speed of the initial spread
makes him wary of a rush to reopen.
“It took us no time at all to get to 160 Covid patients
in the hospital, so we’re afraid of a second wave.
We’re just not over it yet.
The fact that places are being allowed to reopen
is a scary prospect for a lot of us.”
The shutdown has devastated small business owners
throughout southwest Georgia.
Dougherty County, where Albany is located,
has experienced a 4,500 percent hike in jobless claims
since March.
Many residents are now forced to decide between safety
and their bottom line.
“At our salon in Albany Ga.,
we decided that we would go ahead and open up Friday
after Governor Kemp said that we could.
I am single and totally dependent on myself,
and so far, I have not gotten a stimulus check
because I am self-employed.
I just didn’t have a choice anymore.”
“Some feel more conflicted, like Marcus Scott,
who manages Masterpiece Barbershop.”
“We will not reopen.
I understand people have their financial situation,
and what they have to deal with.
However, just getting a phone call
or hearing that this barber passed away because they
went back to work —
I wouldn't be able to live with that.”
He has decided to keep his shop closed for now,
but with the support of a local pastor.
“We, as the church, have decided
to give each one of these barbers
a certain amount of resources.
For some of these barbers, this is their only income.”
“Hey, Pastor.”
“Hey, Sister,
how are you?”
“I’m good.
How are you?”
Pastor Orson Burton has seen the economic strain
on his congregation.
“Now, how are you doing financially?
How are you getting paid?
What’s going on?
What’s good with that?”
"OK — I’m good at the unemployment.
Everything has been falling in place.”
“Be encouraged.
Keep pushing forward, and know that we’re
going to continue to stay with you and walk with you.”
As more members lose jobs and even return to work,
he is doing whatever he can to make sure they move forward
with caution.
“All right, man, God bless you.”
“Yes, sir, thank you.”
“I believe that if we mismanage
this moment for the sake of reopening the economy
and bringing in money, we can literally set our children
and our children’s children back for generations
to come.”
“We just don’t want to bury anybody else.
We don’t want to bury any more loved ones.
We don’t want to bury any more friends because of Covid-19.”
“These are not numbers.
These are souls.
These are lives being lost.
We’ve been through so much.
This is our time to make certain
that the people are represented in rural south
Georgia, but also to spread wisdom and information that
will save a life.”

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