Sheriff Bizzell: COVID-19 And Drive-In Church Services

Governor Roy Cooper’s Stay at Home Order took effect on March 30th, directing people to stay at home except to visit essential businesses, to exercise or to help a family member. The order specifically bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to stay at least 6 feet apart and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Prohibiting 10 or more people from gathering hits especially hard for churches as they prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday, April 12th.

In an article for North Carolina Baptists, Kenny Lamm wrote, “Easter is the highlight of the Christian year — the culmination of the gospel story. Redemption. Resurrection. Eternal life. With churches not being able to celebrate Easter together due to social distancing and limits on public gatherings because of the coronavirus, what should the church do?”

Some churches are live streaming their Sunday worship services – many for the first time – while others are posting taped videos for their congregation to watch from home throughout the week.   A few local churches held drive-in services last Sunday, where members sat in their cars while their pastor stood in the parking lot and gave the message.   But under the new Stay at Home Order, are drive-in church services allowed under the Governor’s Executive Order?

In a letter Tuesday to the NC Sheriff’s Association, Gov. Cooper said, “In answer to the Sheriff’s Association question regarding “drive-in” worship services convened in open-air areas: I trust law enforcement’s judgment in directing people to abide by local and state health department guidance. These kind of gatherings appear to be acceptable as long as individuals remain in their vehicles and avoid contact.”

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said he discussed the topic with District Attorney Susan Doyle this week after receiving numerous calls from churches across Johnston County.

Sheriff Bizzell emailed all county police chiefs on Wednesday saying in part, “As Sheriff, I agree that these drive-in church service gatherings are acceptable as long as individuals remain in their vehicles and practice social distancing (vehicles positioned six feet apart).  We may get some calls from the public concerning this; however, I’m prepared to stand in support of our faith community as they assemble to hear words of comfort and wisdom, and pray, especially during this time of uncertainty in our country.”

“Personally, I feel that if our local ABC stores have been deemed by the State to be essential businesses, that law enforcement leaders in Johnston County should support our Christian community to stay in their cars on church property (holy ground) to be amongst their church family,” Sheriff Bizzell added.

Selma Police Chief Billy Thomas said he received the Sheriff’s email and agrees with him about drive-in church services. “I back and support the narrative of the Sheriff regarding the guidelines being followed.”

Smithfield Police Chief Keith Powell also supports the sheriff’s stance. “I agree that these drive-in church services are acceptable as long as individuals remain in their vehicles and practice social distancing (vehicles positioned six feet apart). It is during these uncertain times that everyone, needs to work together and support each other. These are the times that everyone needs to join together and pray like never before.”