GLENWOOD, Iowa, (DTN) -- As Friday arrives with the holiday of Passover leading into Easter, health officials and state governors are asking residents to continue following guidelines to limit family gatherings and worship at home this weekend.
For large parts of the country, especially in rural America, this weekend will be among the biggest tests in the battle to "flatten the curve" on the coronavirus pandemic as Christians celebrate Easter and families recognize the traditional rebirth of spring.
With stay-at-home orders and social-distancing rules, families are being asked to stick with the national plan to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
"As we go into this holiday, we want to remind people they should continue to follow these guidelines," Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday. "What we want you to do is certainly worship with the levity of the season, but what we also want you to remember is, please, just stay home at your house. Celebrate the holiday with the people in your household."
Throughout much of March, the COVID-19 outbreak has hammered coastal states and large cities, but now many rural counties are showing up among the highest per-capita infection rates in the country, and more than two-thirds of all counties nationally have at least one case.
"It's taken a while but it is starting to come out to those rural areas more and the issue is how prepared are we for it, both in the ability of the health-care system to step up and deal with it, but also culturally, as a rural people to be able to self-isolate and move away from some of those community activities we take for granted as part of our day-to-day living," said Brad Gibbens, acting director at the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Gibbens, who grew up on a North Dakota farm, said this weekend will be emotionally difficult for a lot of people who are accustomed to seeing their extended families and going to church together, but there is a basic need right now for both individual and community responsibility.
"It hurts us as who we are as people, but if we enjoy getting together, we also want to be able to have the opportunity to get together next year, and the year after that. So that means maybe this year we have to do a little more sacrificing," Gibbens said.
Adult children also need to take into consideration their parents, who have higher risks of having underlying medical problems. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control highlight that nearly 75% of those with COVID-19 who need hospitalization are age 50 and older. Hospitalization rates continue moving upward with older people. But these parents and grandparents also may have a hard time telling their children and grandchildren not to visit, Gibbens said.
"It's a tough position, particularly for older parents who don't want to tell their kids, 'Don't come.' You hope the kids have the awareness themselves. It's harder when it's put on the parents to actually say that," he said.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, is known as a devoutly religious farm leader. He offered this advice when asked for a comment from DTN.
"Many of us can't imagine spending Easter away from a place of worship, but we owe it to the health care providers putting their lives on the line for us to follow the guidance -- even on Easter. We have much to pray for and much to be thankful for, all of which we can do safely in our homes," Duvall said. "As the Lord himself tells us in Matthew, where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
Several governors have been asked in the past few days how they will handle Easter. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday it's important to maintain social distancing and avoid inviting others to your home, even if the event includes fewer than 10 people coming to a home.
"Be responsible," Reynolds said. "Stay at home. That's how you limit exposure. Everybody has to be responsible when we're making those decisions." Reynolds added her family "is going to get together this Sunday for Easter via Zoom." She added, "We're using social media to connect, but we're not getting together with my family either because we need to do everything we can to stay at home, limit going out except for essential services, and if we do this, we will get through this thing sooner rather than later."
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards also warned Wednesday that people in his state "can't let our guard down" or cases will spike up again in his state. Edwards said people shouldn't hold block parties or invite all their siblings, children and grandparents over to visit this Sunday. In a typical Louisiana holiday, Edwards said Louisiana residents "can boil crawfish" for their immediate families.
"We need to be very patient. This Easter is not going to look like previous Easters but that doesn't mean you can't find some significant way to meaningfully worship and to celebrate," Edwards said. "But we shouldn't do it in groups of people that violate what we've been talking about. There was no Easter exemption from the stay-at-home order. There was no Easter exemption from that 10-person limit, because that virus isn't going to honor that. This is about the virus, and the virus is very much in control, and that's why we're trying to do things that will impact of the virus."
While nursing homes have been among the hardest hit institutions in rural America, early spikes in cases in counties across the country in March were also tied to church gatherings, many of which took place before states began putting restrictions on crowd sizes.
Churches, though, have adapted to the COVID-19 challenge. While some may not be able technologically to hold services, many are making it work. Gibbens said his church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, is having prayer service via Zoom and doing a Facebook livestream on Sundays.
For some rural churches, the livestreams have actually broadened the reach of their message over the past month. A small Catholic church in St. John, North Dakota, that might have 35 worshippers a week now has had as many as 1,000 people watching their streamed services.
"So people are finding it and kind of flocking to it, which I think is wonderful," Gibbens said. "It shows there is an Easter service somewhere that someone can access electronically."
Still, some states continue battling over public health versus individual rights, mixed with partisanship. On Wednesday, Kansas Republicans on the state's Legislative Coordinating Council voted to overturn Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's executive order restricting gatherings sizes to 10 people or fewer because the order limited gatherings for churches and funerals. The Kansas attorney general, a Republican, said the order to limit gatherings appeared to be good public health advice, but violates the state constitution. It's unclear how the political dispute will change church services or family gatherings in the Sunflower State.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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