New Life Fellowship on East Pole Road conducted a drive-up worship service on Sunday, May 24. It was the second Sunday of doing so and will continue under current COVID-19 guidelines, said pastor Justin Bailey. After weeks of just posting a recorded sermon to YouTube, he sought a more meaningful connection to his congregation, Bailey said.  (Calvin Bratt/Lynden Tribune)

But Gov. Inslee says he’s not ready for that to happen yet

  WHATCOM — Calling houses of worship “essential services”  in the pandemic, President Trump on Friday urged governors to let them reopen “right now.”

  “Today I am identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogue and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said at a hastily scheduled briefing at the White House. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right.”

  The president added, “If there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me but they’re not going to be successful in that call.”

  Religious services have emerged as a flashpoint since states first began restricting large gatherings in trying to curb the coronavirus. Trump initially sought to have the country reopen by Easter in April.

  But Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office pushed back within hours of Trump’s statement.

  “Our office continues to work with spiritual leaders and health experts to identify ways to do this safely,” a spokesman said in a written statement to KOMO News Radio. “While we have read the president’s comments, there is no order and we think he understands at this point that he can’t dictate what states can or cannot open.”

  Inslee’s office had scheduled a news conference for Thursday morning to talk about guidelines for reopening places of religious worship. But that event with reporters was canceled, with Inslee’s staff saying the guidance was not yet ready.

  In Whatcom County, many churches have created some form of worship interaction or experience for their members via online video or audio while not physically assembling together since  mid-March.

  This past Sunday, May 24, New Life Fellowship on East Pole Road did conduct a worship service inviting people to be in their vehicles in the parking lot to hear their pastor preach and a praise team sing from under the covered walkway around the church. About 25 vehicles came and had their windows open.

  For now, the drive-up services are the only spiritual in-person activities allowed.

  • Washington has a phased approach to reopening the state. Those phases are:

  Phase 1: Some outdoor recreation is allowed, but the state’s ban on large gatherings remains in effect and only certain activities including construction, landscaping, automobile sales and curbside or quick indoor pick-up of food sales are permitted.

  Phase 2: Outdoor recreation involving up to five people is permitted along with in-store retail purchases with some restrictions, real estate transactions and hair salons and barbers. Restaurants can reopen to one-half of their capacity, with tables seating no more than five.

  Phase 3: The size of outdoor groups may go to 50 peoples and non-essential travel is permitted. The capacity of restaurants grows to 70 percent, but tables may not seat more than 10 people; movie theaters can reopen.

  Phase 4: Public interactions resume with physical distancing. Gatherings of more than 50 people are allowed. Clubs, concerts and large sporting events are permitted.

  Through it all, food and hardware stores, lumber yards and greenhouses have been considered “essential” to be open.

  • Seven new counties were approved last week to move to Phase 2 of Gov. Inslee’s Safe Start plan. They are Cowlitz, Grant, Island, Jefferson, Mason, Pacific and San Juan counties.

  That brought the allowed counties to 21 of Washington’s total 39. Clallam, Kitsap and Thurston were eligible to apply. The most populous counties, including Whatcom, remain in Phase 1.

  Businesses approved to move into Phase 2 must comply with all health and safety requirements outlined in the guidance to reopen.

  To apply for a variance, counties must have an average of less than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period. The application process requires support from the local health officer, the local board of health, local hospitals and the county commission/council.

  •  Through Monday, May 25, Whatcom County’s Health Department reported 381 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 33 deaths from the virus since testing began in late February. 

  The number of deaths was up one after being zero for the previous two weeks. There were 12 new cases, after being at six for all of last week.

  Washington State has had 20,065 cases and 1,070 deaths in the pandemic, and a 6.1% positive rate out of more than 330,000 tests. The state reports 36 deaths in Whatcom County, different from the local source.