RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia governor Ralph Northam has made it a criminal offense to attend church services of more than 10 people. An executive order went into effect in the commonwealth on Tuesday, March 24, making any non-essential gatherings a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail or a fine of $2,500.
Executive Order 53 states “All gatherings of more than 10 people are banned statewide, beginning at 11:59 PM on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. This does not include gatherings that involve the provision of health care or medical services, access to essential services for low-income residents, such as food banks; operations of the media; law enforcement agencies; or operations of government.”
The executive order expires at 11:59 p.m. on April 23, 2020, and is subject to change at any time in response to ongoing concerns for public health during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the order, democratic Governor Northam ordered all restaurants, breweries, food courts, farmers markets, and bars to close to the public, and shift to delivery and takeout only. Only retail businesses deemed “essential” were permitted to remain open.
Essential businesses include grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, medical supply stores, gas stations, pet stores, laundromats, and liquor stores.
“Any brick-and-mortar retail business not listed above must limit all in-person shopping to no more than 10 patrons per establishment, adhere to social distancing recommendations, sanitize common surfaces, and apply relevant workplace guidance from state and federal authorities."
"If any such business cannot adhere to the 10-patron limit with proper social distancing requirements, it must close,” said the order.
Businesses that are found to be in violation of Executive Order Fifty-Three “may be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.” In Virginia, Class 1 misdemeanors are punishable with “confinement in jail for not more than twelve months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both."
Unlike other jurisdictions where similar shutdown orders have been issued, places of worship--of any creed or belief--have not been labeled as essential in Virginia, and are subject to this order.
“Virginians are strongly encouraged to seek alternative means of attending religious services, such as virtually or via “drive-through” worship,” states a webpage of frequently asked questions about Executive Order 53 on the state government website.
“Places of worship that do conduct in-person services must limit gatherings to 10 people, to comply with the statewide 10-person ban.”
Both of Virginia’s Catholic dioceses have already suspended the public celebration of Mass in response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, and parishes are instructed to allow no more than 10 worshippers in the church at one time. Parish buildings largely remain open for private prayer, and some parishes have continued to offer confessions. Others have not.
Many parishes have opted to live-stream liturgies in lieu of in-person attendance.
Many evangelical mega-churches in Northern Virginia have also shifted their services to online-viewing only.
In a press release about the executive order, Northam called the pandemic an “unprecedented situation” which “requires unprecedented actions to protect public health and save lives.”
“I know the next several weeks will be difficult. These restrictions on non-essential businesses will create hardships on the businesses and employees affected. But they are necessary, and we do not undertake them lightly. I am calling on Virginians to sacrifice now, so that we can get through this together,” he said.
Virginia has had 391 identified cases of COVID-19, with nine deaths, as of Wednesday morning.