The Faith-Based Information Sharing & Analysis Organization has raised its threat level for religious institutions to “severe” based on the risk the coronavirus poses to house of worship.
Washington, D.C., saw its first case of the coronavirus on March 7 when rector Timothy Cole at Christ Church Georgetown, an Episcopal historic parish in D.C., tested positive. Additional cases connected to the church have since been confirmed, with D.C. Health warning that visitors to the church between Feb. 24 and March 6 could have been exposed to the virus.
“These last couple of weeks have been a strange up-and-down experience, and some days simply blur into each other. This virus has left me wiped out a lot of the time, but other days I have felt somewhat better,” Cole wrote in a March 10 note to parishioners. “…As things stand, the doctors have seen improvements, but I have some road to travel before I am well.”
In New Rochelle, N.Y., which is now a containment area, hundreds of members of the Young Israel congregation have been under voluntary quarantine and the rabbi has tested positive for the virus. One member is the attorney who commuted into Manhattan and had recently returned from Miami before he was confirmed as one of the state’s first cases of coronavirus.
In Italy, which has been particularly hard-hit by the virus, the Catholic Church has closed churches across Rome in the middle of the Lenten season. And in South Korea, more than half of the country’s cases as of Saturday had been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
The “severe” threat level decreed by FB-ISAO means that an event is “highly likely.”
“Technically, the threat from coronavirus (COVID-19) is more aligned with our highest level of threat, which is ‘CRITICAL,'” FB-ISAO said in a bulletin today. “CRITICAL means that an attack or event is under way or expected imminently. While this is the case with COVID-19, the event being the ongoing pandemic, based on our assessment of the lethality of the threat in the United States at this time, and given proactive mitigating actions, we assess that ‘SEVERE’ is a more reasonable – while still an urgent – level.”
“Given the very diverse nature of the populations at faith-based organizations – from places of worship to charities to schools and others – we are not recommending specific actions but rather are encouraging FBOs to assess the evolving threat to their places and people and consider appropriate actions to mitigate risk,” the alert continues.
Faith-based organizations are encouraged to “constantly assess the threat, operations, and mitigation activities,” “implement enhanced hygiene procedures and implement reasonable social distancing,” and “practice good disinfection discipline.”
As far as mass gatherings, houses of worship should urge at-risk populations to skip events and consider limiting the size of assemblies — a measure that some state and local jurisdictions are doing.
FB-ISAO plans to reassess the threat level at the end of this month.
FB-ISAO upgraded its internal threat level to “elevated” in April after a gunman opened fire on a San Diego County synagogue. The attack coincided with the last day of Passover and Shabbat, and the alleged shooter cited the March mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the October 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. In November, FB-ISAO put the threat level at “guarded,” noting that while not raising the threat to “elevated” the Christmas and Hanukkah season posed a physical threat from extremist groups.