Pew research suggests that, at the beginning of the pandemic, Americans from lower-income or majority-minority neighborhoods were more likely to be infected with COVID-19 through religious gatherings such as churches than those living in higher-income or predominantly white neighborhoods.
Cell phone data was an early indicator that Sunday morning church attendance slowed significantly in the spring. According to a new model published in Nature, it also reveals the disparities in which segments of the population were able to stay at home and reduce exposure.
Researchers at Stanford University found that churches were among the top five sites for coronavirus transmission, alongside restaurants, gyms, cafes and snack bars, and hotels. According to an analysis of anonymous cell phone data, these places tended to have more visitors and longer visits. In all, the model calculates that visits to these sites accounted for 70 percent of transmitted cases during the first several weeks of the pandemic.
The study used mobility data from cell phone users in 10 large US metro areas throughout March and April. They calculated the transmission rate in various neighborhoods by overlaying US Census data with the density of infected individuals in those locations. (They compared it to the New York Times’ COVID-19 case tracker and found the model to be an accurate prediction.)
Even though black churches have generally been the most cautious about reopening, residents in black and Hispanic neighborhoods who met in person during this time carried a greater likelihood of transmission largely due to their higher mobility and more frequent visits to crowded places.
Since contact-tracing efforts weren’t widely available, the cell phone data has stood in to help researchers understand people’s movement around their cities. During the first months of the outbreak, visits to churches and other religious organizations dropped by an estimated 6.18 million in New York, an early hot spot. In Chicago, there were 3.27 million fewer visits; in San Francisco, 1.23 million fewer.
Among the major metro areas in the study, Philadelphia stands out with the starkest disparity. The model indicated that people living in neighborhoods of color faced an infection risk 20 times higher than people living in white neighborhoods, if all activities had fully reopened during the outbreak.
In Atlanta and Dallas, though, infection rates in nonwhite neighborhoods were shown to be near to equal that of whites, while seven other cities fell somewhere in between.
“Philly is the largest poor city in America. We’re dealing with a pandemic, but we’re also dealing with unemployment and racial issues, just to name a few,” said J. R. Briggs, a pastor who knows about a dozen people who have contracted the virus and one who died. “With cases on the rise again, people are feeling discouraged and trying not to lose hope.”
Philadelphia issued another “Safer at Home” order last week, though churches are not specifically shut down. For the most part, pastors have been left to discern how to operate safely amid mandates and orders from both state and local officials in Pennsylvania, said Briggs, who coaches pastors in Philadelphia and around the country through Kairos Partnerships.
Last spring, a leader with the Church of God in Christ, the largest African American Pentecostal denomination, told CT, “Our churches are primarily located in dense urban areas, which are many of the epicenters of this virus.” The denomination’s presiding bishop repeatedly advised churches to follow public health guidelines and refrain from reopening prematurely.
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Source: Christianity Today