Faced with civil suit that alleged discrimination against churches, Jackson County announced Wednesday evening it would amend reopening guidelines that went into effect this week.
The county announced via the Health Department’s social media that places of worship will be allowed to open with the same occupancy limits as nonessential businesses – 25 percent capacity for those less than 10,000 square feet and 10 percent for those greater than 10,000 square feet.
In another change, gyms and fitness center will be allowed to open next Monday with occupancy limits (not specified).
“It’s frustrating that it took that long, but we’re relieved,” said Bobby Hawk, pastor of EPIC church in Independence.
Abundant Life Baptist Church in Lee’s Summit filed a civil suit after the county’s initial phase one reopening guidelines limited churches to 10 people regardless of size, including weddings and funerals. Those particular services were not mentioned specifically in Wednesday’s announcement. Hawk said earlier Wednesday he planned to join Abundant Life’s suit Thursday if the county had not announced changes. A hearing on the case had been scheduled for Friday.
Hawk had said his church would be having sign-ups to maintain the 10-percent capacity limit for those comfortable attending Sunday’s services, in the event of a favorable ruling Friday.
When county officials crafted phase one guidelines, Eastern Jackson County mayors – from Blue Springs, Grain Valley, Independence, Lee’s Summit, Raytown and Sugar Creek – had recommended to the county last week and again Sunday evening that churches and funeral homes be allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity.
“Conversations with these stakeholders (have) produced valuable modification proposals to help limit risk,” the county said in social media posts announcing the changes. “The Health Department encourages the use of drive-in and online services whenever possible, especially for high-risk populations.”
County Legislature Chair Theresa Cass Galvin, R-Lee’s Summit, raised the church issue with County Executive Frank White Jr. at the May 4 legislative meeting during a discussion of the new county rules.
“I think churches are very important for us to look at because the community, they need the church,” she said.
Galvin said a church with a capacity of 300, for example, ought not be limited to 10 people. Many area churches far exceed that capacity.
“It doesn’t really make sense” as long as people in attendance maintain social distancing, she said.
White said then he would take it under consideration.