Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced new coronavirus restrictions on Thursday and offered an exhortation to Virginians of faith to practice health precautions when attending church services, assuring them that they do not have to “sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers.”
“This is a holy time for multiple faith traditions,” Northam said at a press conference on Thursday, noting that Hanukkah would begin that evening. “Christmas is two weeks away. The holidays are typically times of joy and community. We gather together, we celebrate our faith, and we celebrate with family.”
“But this year we need to think about what is truly the most important thing. Is it the worship or the building. For me, God is wherever you are. You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers,” Northam said. “Worship with a mask on is still worship. Worship outside or worship online is still worship.”
The Democratic governor called on faith leaders to “lead the way and set an example.”
Northam added that his own church is worshipping “from the parking lot” and does not currently hold in-person services.
The governor also blamed the spread of the virus in Virginia on congregations that he said acted carelessly in observing health precautions, saying that while most churches across the state have “done the right thing,” some have failed to social distance and wear masks.
“Quite frankly, we know that a lot of the spread is coming from this because these individuals that are in a place of worship and contract the virus then go out to their place of work or to the grocery store or the convenience store or wherever and that’s how this is spread,” the governor said.
However, the governor is not imposing additional restrictions on houses of worship as part of the new slate of restrictions, a move that comes after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of several New York churches and synagogues that challenged pandemic restrictions on religious services.
“We’re following suit on that,” the governor said of the New York decision.
Virginia’s new restrictions include a tighter 10-person limit on the number of people allowed in social gatherings, a midnight to 5a.m. curfew, which Northam called a “modified stay-at-home order,” and a requirement for all Virginians age five and up to wear masks indoors anytime they are around non-household members.
The new rules come as Virginia sees its coronavirus cases spike to an average of more than 3,700 new cases per day, up from the previous record of 1,200 daily in May.
The positivity rate across the state is eleven percent, up from seven percent about a month ago.