Worshippers go online, those at services keep a distance

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Vatican Media

Pope Francis prays in S. Marcello al Corso church, in front of a miraculous crucifix that in 1552 was carried in a procession around Rome to stop the great plague, Sunday, March 15, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (Vatican News via AP)

ATLANTA, Ga. – Pastors across the United States delivered sermons to empty pews Sunday as houses of worship adjusted to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, with the Vatican indicating that the holiest week on its calendar will look vastly different next month.

While many religious institutions around the country took to the internet to stream their services this week – including one megachurch that President Donald Trump tweeted he was tuning in to – some tried to take extra precautions while maintaining a semblance of their Sunday routine amid mounting public anxiety over the outbreak.

Trump, who had declared Sunday a special national day of prayer, said he would watch a livestreamed service by Jentezen Franklin, a Georgia-based pastor and long-standing evangelical ally of the president. The annual National Day of Prayer is May 7.

During his sermon, Franklin urged prayers for China and Iran, areas hit particularly hard by the virus. Franklin also sought to acknowledge the fatal toll that coronavirus is already exacting worldwide while encouraging worshippers not to “let the fear flu get you” by falling prey to panic.

More than 5,800 people worldwide have died in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with U.S. deaths topping 60. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Trump, who tested negative for the coronavirus according to a statement from his personal physician, tweeted that Franklin’s service was “great and beautiful.”

Franklin held his Sunday services exclusively online, as public health experts urge the cancellation of big gatherings of all kinds to curtail the spread of coronavirus, but others did not.

A hardy few came to mostly empty churches as pastors faced hard decisions about continuing to hold services, and how to maintain the bonds of a congregation when large gatherings could transmit the coronavirus.