MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — Masks are now required at places of worship in Mecklenburg County as part of the county's mask mandate.
The mandate, which was passed on Sept. 12, allowed an additional 10 days before taking effect for religious gatherings in Mecklenburg County.
Mecklenburg County commissioners were split on passing the amendment, fearing the rule could potentially cross the line that separates church and state. Eventually, it passed 5-4.
"I think when we get to the point of challenging a church what they can and cannot do, given the fact that there are so many different religions, I think we're going down a slippery slope," Board of County Commissioners Chairman George Dunlap said.
On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper praised faith leaders for their support throughout the pandemic and asked them to continue educating their congregations on COVID-19 vaccines.
“Getting vaccinated is one of the deepest expressions of our shared values to protect human life and love our neighbor," Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen wrote in an open letter to faith leaders. "It is an act of love to our families and our communities. While we have made much progress in the state, too many people are needlessly getting seriously ill, being hospitalized, and dying. Our hospitals are strained, and in other states we’ve seen that care is not readily available for people experiencing non-COVID life-threatening health crises. We need your help."
Some congregations in Charlotte welcomed the mandate, especially since they've been taking precautions for months.
"It's a hassle," exclaimed Rev. Jay Leach with Unitarian Universalists Community of Charlotte. "But it's important."
His congregation has remained virtual, with masks required for the few people who help stream the service from inside the sanctuary.
"We feel like this is a part of our role in the community," he said.
He welcomed the county getting rid of the religious exemption for its indoor mask mandate.
"It's consistent with what we know about science, it's consistent with what we know about care for the larger community," he said.
On the north side of Charlotte, the stricter rules for places of worship are also welcomed by leaders at Have Life Church.
"If we're going to make an error as the church, we're going to error on the side of caution," Executive Pastor Justin Turner said.
He admitted the back and forth of mandates and COVID-19 protocols has been a roller coaster.
"It is exhausting, but as I said, I believe that it's necessary for where we are and where the church is going to be in the future," he said.
Worshippers fill the seats in the sanctuary, although there are about 200 fewer seats to provide room for social distancing, according to Turner.
Hand sanitizer was spotted at about every turn, and masks have been required inside since the church started holding Sunday service in-person again.
"Whatever the mandate is that's what we'll follow," he said.
Wednesday bible study sessions were still being held virtual-only.
Throughout the pandemic, 44 deaths have been tied to clusters at religious gatherings according to data from the state health department.
A dozen of them were traced back to the United House of Prayer in west Charlotte last fall when the church held large gatherings with parishioners coming from across the region.
Now, churches have new rules to follow as the county asks them to practice what they preach by loving thy neighbor and wearing a mask in order to protect one another.
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