White House to issue guidance on church reopenings after dispute with CDC caused delay

There has been a struggle over CDC guidelines, with the White House expressing concerns that they are too restrictive.

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By Carol E. Lee, Kristen Welker and Phil Helsel

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday that his administration will release guidelines for reopening places of worship by Friday after they were delayed by a disagreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over what the recommendations should entail.

Trump said he told the CDC on Thursday to put out the guidelines, which have been revised by White House officials in recent days to make them less stringent than the ones the agency initially recommended.

“The CDC is going to put something out very soon,” Trump said during an event in Michigan. “We’re going to get our churches open.”

“They’re so important to the psyche of our country,” the president said.

According to a senior administration official, the guidelines for places of worship that have been cleared by the White House Counsel’s Office include recommendations such as wearing gloves while distributing Holy Communion, social distancing and holding virtual services as a last resort.

A White House official said Trump spoke with CDC Director Robert Redfield on Thursday and that the agency “will release guidelines in the near future.” The senior administration official said the guidelines would be out within a week to 10 days.

Trump held a conference call with pastors Thursday morning before leaving for Michigan, the official said.

Some religious leaders have expressed concern to the White House that government guidelines for reopening the country offer a roadmap for places like restaurants while leaving churches, mosques and synagogues with fewer options beyond virtual services, the official said.

Evangelical voters have been a critical constituency for Trump as he campaigns for re-election, and officials said the White House has closely consulted religious leaders as they drafted the guidelines.

Before leaving for Michigan, Trump tried to cast the reopening of places of worship as a political wedge issue, saying churches were being treated differently by Democratic governors.

“I want to get our churches open,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We will take a very strong position on that very soon.”

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The White House's draft guidelines for places of worship recommend that religious leaders have the resources to conduct deep cleanings of their spaces and take into consideration the rate of coronavirus infections in their city or town, the administration official said.

This week, the CDC quietly released a detailed roadmap for reopening that included child-care facilities, restaurants, summer camps and youth sports organizations. But the document did not include guidelines for places of worship. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said Wednesday that the White House was revising those.

The CDC's initial guidelines for places of worship were “more draconian and less optimistic” than the White House wanted, the administration official said Thursday.

“The guidance as drafted tilted toward not opening places of worship” while that was not the case for schools, transit systems and restaurants, the official said.

A second senior administration official told NBC News that the CDC’s recommendations “can be overly bureaucratic, so we are doing our best to rein in the CDC and empower states to make their own decisions.”

The disagreement between the White House and CDC over the guidelines was first reported by The Washington Post.

There has been a broader struggle for weeks between the CDC and the White House over guidelines for reopening the country, with the president’s aides expressing concerns that the agency’s guidelines are too restrictive.

Places of worship tend to be larger, so social distancing could be more easily achieved than in some other spaces, with some churches having the capacity for several thousand people, the first administration official said.

Meanwhile, states and individual places of worship across the country are already creating their own timetables for returning to in-person services.

As of Thursday, the coronavirus illness COVID-19 had been confirmed in more than 1.5 million people in the United States, with more than 94,000 deaths linked to the disease, according to an NBC News count.