A state Assemblymember, an estimated 70 pastors and church leaders, and at least 100 supporters gathered outside a Hamburg church, where they demanded Gov. Andrew Cuomo consider places of worship as essential institutions and reopen them.
Old Tyme Baptist Church played host to the rally, and hosted services at 50% capacity last week. Pastor Louis Guadagno said they will do it again next Sunday.
"We had 161 here last week, this past Sunday, and it was wonderful," he said. "Everyone was socially distant. We gave masks out to those that needed them. All of our ushers and all of our workers had masks and gloves, but didn't pass the offering plate. We had the doors open so no one had to touch the doors. Every time anyone would use the bathroom, only one family unit was allowed at a time and then we would sanitize after every use."
Guadagno and other pastors in attendance say they understood the need to close their houses of worship at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic's arrival in New York state. But the restrictions put in place to flatten the rising case curve, they insist, are no longer necessary.
When Cuomo appeared in Buffalo last week to announce that the five counties of the Western New York economic region were ready to enter phase one of reopening the economy, he and his administrative staff stated that places of worship fell under phase four of the plan, out of concern for their large gatherings. Cuomo added that a COVID hotspot in New Rochelle originated from a religious gathering.
Later in the week, though, he eased his stance and announced that places of worship would be allowed to accommodate up to 10 attendees.
Assemblyman David DiPietro, who called to reopen churches and businesses during a rally in Niagara Square last Thursday, echoed the sentiments of the pastors, that what were acceptable sacrifices in the beginning have become an excess of power by the governor.
"The social quarantine has gone farther than it should have been allowed," he said. "The governor of New York state does not supersede God's will. The state does not supersede the Constitution of the United States. The governor of New York state does not tell us how to worship."
Another reason why it is urgent to reopen places of worship, speakers all argued, is that the spiritual connection is now more urgent than ever amid a pandemic that, they said, has led to higher rates of crime, domestic violence, mental health concerns and addiction.
Not all churches and pastors are in as much of a hurry to reopen their doors. When he is not serving in his role as Buffalo Common Council President, Darius Pridgen is a bishop who heads True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo. He told WBFO he had recently participated in a conference call with peers who agree to take a slow approach to reopening.
He expressed his respect for the opinion of those calling for a speedier reopening of places of worship, but did not entirely agree with the notion of government interference. Pridgen noted that government input is necessary for issues affecting places of worship including building and fire safety codes.
"I think that there's a point where the government can be involved for safety. However, I agree with the constitution, I agree with our constitutional rights," Pridgen said. "But this is a little different for me. I'm only speaking for me in that, part of the reason that I'm trying to follow the governor's orders and work with the governor is for the health and safety of all persons. But again, I do not besmirch the persons who feel a different way. This is just the way I feel."
Pridgen also has the firsthand experience of being a recovered COVID patient.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo is also not immediately rushing to reopen the doors to its parishes, admitting that as the eight counties that make up the diocese cover two of the state's economic zones, some preparedness to reopen may not be consistent throughout the diocese. Earlier this month, it issued its own guidelines for how to manage facilities and congregations when its churches do reopen.
DiPietro, meanwhile, doubled down on comments he made the previous week in downtown Buffalo regarding concerns for a second coronavirus wave. As he did the previous Thursday, he suggested the public will know how to act and, thus, those fears will not come to fruition.
"They're gonna social distance. We've learned that, right? They're gonna use hand sanitizer more," he said. "And how does the common flu spread mostly? By contact, while we're alleviating that. I could be wrong but personally, and from what I've read, that second wave is going to be as false as the first wave they said was going to happen. So don't believe it."