Illinois church holds services amid coronavirus distancing order

Chicago News USA

MAPLETON — Police investigated a complaint Wednesday about a Mapleton church holding a service during the state’s stay-at-home order.

At 7:45 p.m., an anonymous caller alerted the Peoria County Sheriff’s Office regarding “multiple vehicles’ parked in the lot at LaMarsh Baptist Church, 9507 Mapleridge Road. A deputy arrived to see about 20 vehicles parked outside, according to a sheriff’s report.

The pastor, Richard Dillard, stepped outside and told the deputy that the church was conducting a service. The church’s website lists its regular services, including one at 7 p.m. Wednesdays.

As for the service, Dillard told the deputy, “We are essential,” according to the report.

The pastor said that his church can hold up to 400 people yet only about 50 people typically attend. The report did not specify the number there Wednesday. Ushers were wearing gloves, and Dillard said the church was following “all the protocols per the government’s advice,” including attendees sitting at least 6 feet apart, the report stated.

The deputy stated in the report, “I informed him that I was there to find out what was going on and that I was not requiring him to close his service. He told me that if the sheriff wanted him to shut down, he would.”

The state’s stay-at-home order prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people, except for exempted activities. The exempted list does not include church services.

Furthermore, upon issuing the stay-at-home order, the state released a list of frequently asked questions, including: “Can I leave home to go to religious services? Large gatherings, such as church services, will be cancelled to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Dillard, the LaMarsh pastor, declined to talk about the matter with the Journal Star, including whether he would hold further services.

“I’m not discussing that at all,” he said.

Sheriff Brian Asbell said that though the stay-at-home order has some “gray areas,” the rules do not seem to give churches room to hold services.

In search of creative alternatives, multiple churches have contacted his office this week asking for guidance regarding the possibility of holding drive-in services in parking lots, akin to traditional drive-in movie theaters. Though church attendees would be inside vehicles, Asbell believes such gatherings could involve contact, such as for donation collections or spur-of-the-moment socializing.

“And what if a car window is open and somebody sneezes?” he said.

With those churches, he has shared advice from the Peoria City/County Health Department: Use alternative yet safe ways to stay connected to church members, such as via podcasts, internet chats or phone calls.

“The intent of the order is to stay safe and to stay home,” Asbell said.

“As we head toward the (COVID-19) peak in a couple of weeks, we want everyone to understand that this is for real.”

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