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story.lead_photo.caption This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19. ( NIAID-RML via AP )

The Catholic Diocese of Little Rock has dispensed of the obligation to attend Sunday Masses effective immediately and will suspend most public Masses beginning March 21 because of concerns related to the coronavirus.

In a letter issued Thursday to Catholics in Arkansas, Bishop Anthony Taylor said the diocese is trying to be proactive with regard to the coronavirus and the covid-19 illness, instead of reactive. The measures are in place to "flatten the curve," Taylor said, in reference to the spike of virus cases that has been seen in other countries, including Italy.

"While COVID-19 is unlikely to be serious for most people, we have an obligation to care for the very young, the aged, and those with compromised immune systems," Taylor said in the letter. "And the best way we can care for them is minimizing large group gatherings for the time being."

Among the changes detailed in Taylor's letter, all nonessential parish gatherings scheduled for March and April are canceled or postponed until further notice, including confirmation ceremonies already scheduled.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

When possible, churches will remain open during daylight hours for private prayer and Eucharistic Adoration as an alternative to Sunday Mass. Holy water fonts will be drained and dried, and other changes include canceling communal penance services and face-to-face confessions.

Taylor said he plans to reassess the changes April 15.

Nine people in Arkansas have presumably tested positive for the coronavirus, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, there have been 1,629 cases and 49 deaths related to covid-19, with cases of the virus reported in Washington, D.C., and 46 states.

Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky recommended Thursday that churches suspend their services, the first state official reported to make such a request of a jurisdiction.

Rabbi Barry Block was scheduled to lead a prayer service Friday while the sanctuary remained empty at Congregation B'nai Israel in Little Rock, but he ended up leading the service via the web conferencing platform Zoom.

News about the spread of the respiratory virus in Arkansas unfolded quickly this week, Block said, leading B'nai Israel to cancel today's services.

Congregation B'nai Israel is one among a number of worship houses in Arkansas that have closed their doors temporarily and, in some cases, transitioned to a virtual form so worshippers can continue to gather as a community. Others have canceled all non-worship events, such as the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Houses of worship that haven't closed are adhering to CDC health guidelines and are taking precautions to protect the health of their members, advising all who feel unwell to stay at home and for all to resist the urge to panic.

"We all woke up this morning ... to a new reality," said the Rev. William Robinson, pastor of First Baptist Church in North Little Rock. "It seems like America is shutting down among [news of] the coronavirus."

Robinson urged members who felt unwell to stay home, and he cautioned against fear.

"The biggest mistake we can make is panic. We don't want to panic," Robinson said. "We want to take one step at a time, because God listens. God is still in complete control."

Among the ideas Block offered during Friday's prayer service: For every hand you don't shake, make a phone call.

"We need to reach each other in ways that are safe," Block said. "We do need to stay away from each other in terms of large gatherings, but we've got to reach out to each other. We have to not face this alone."

In a communication from the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, Bishop Larry Benfield strongly urged all congregations of the faith throughout the state not to gather in person, a day after he encouraged virtual meetings over physical gatherings for all Episcopal churches in Pulaski, Saline and Jefferson counties through March 31.

"These are all ways that we can still be a part of supportive Christian communities in this challenging time in which we need one another more than ever, but may not able to be with one another physically," Benfield said in a letter sent to Episcopalians on Friday.

Sam Roberts, a missions strategist for the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and Bob Johnson, assistant team leader and community missions strategist, addressed Southern Baptist leaders in a video Friday and encouraged them to be strategic, but also pastoral in responding to the coronavirus.

Prayer, said Roberts, is a key spiritual discipline.

"Prayer is always our first response," he said.

A separate release from the denomination announced that all events for this weekend are canceled, including the Inspire Women's Conference in Russellville; a block party training in Beebe; a disaster relief training in Cabot; and a regional prayer gathering Sunday in Hot Springs.

"Stay calm, don't panic, and trust God that this is an opportunity for pastoral leadership at its finest," Johnson said.

Little Rock's Ecumenical Buddhist Society on Friday suspended all groups, classes and events for the next two weeks, but reminded its members that sangha, or their sense of community, "is not contained by the [four] walls of the building."

"[The society] lives within the hearts of its members," the board said in its notice. "Our practice goes on, minute by minute ... day by ... day."

Metro on 03/14/2020

Print Headline: Caution cancels religious services

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