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CDC Revises Guidance For Churches, No Longer Limiting Choirs

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Church leaders who wonder how they might resume in-person worship now have to make that decision with less guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An updated version of the CDC advisory for houses of worship now omits a previous warning about singing and the risks of virus transmission that may go with it. NPR's Tom Gjelten says conservative Christian groups pressed for the change.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Scientists who study how the coronavirus is transmitted say it's all about aerosols, the tiny droplets that come out in a spray when people cough or sneeze or when people sing. Dr. Donald Milton is an expert on viral transmission at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

DONALD MILTON: The understanding of how aerosols are generated from the mouth, the throat and the lungs point to singing being a very effective way to generate airborne particles from the respiratory tract.

GJELTEN: Imagine then how many particles went out into the air Friday morning when singers at a service in Atlanta belted out "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) A bulwark never failing.

GJELTEN: This was a memorial service for the evangelist Ravi Zacharias.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MIGHT FORTRESS IS OUR GOD")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) He amid the flood.

GJELTEN: And the singers on the stage were good, which itself may be a problem, Milton says.

MILTON: A well-trained singer learns to use all of the air in their lungs and slowly bleed it out while generating the maximum volume with that amount of air.

GJELTEN: Until this week, the CDC guidelines for how houses of worship might reopen suggested decreasing the use of choral singing because of the associated risk. But that advice is now gone. A federal official told NPR the guidance was published by mistake and that the updated version, without the reference to singing, is the one cleared by the White House. Among those faith leaders applauding the change is the evangelist Tony Suarez.

TONY SUAREZ: The Bible teaches us to sing, to worship, to lift our voice. For me personally and my spiritual convictions, I can't get around those verses and say that we can allow the government to restrict us from singing.

GJELTEN: Suarez is a member of President Trump's evangelical advisory board. He says the president's faith advisers urged him to support a loosening of the restrictions under which churches can reopen.

But faith leaders are split on this. The National Council of Churches last week urged churches to exercise extreme caution in reopening and specifically to avoid singing.

Lucinda Halstead agrees with that advice. She's an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina and advises teachers of singing. She's also a regular churchgoer and once directed her church's children's choir. Her advice to church groups ready to reopen - move carefully.

LUCINDA HALSTEAD: If they wanted to have a congregation and space everybody out and have quiet prayer with minimal talking, soft talking, they're probably OK. But once you start adding singing into the mix, I think that you're really taking a risk.

GJELTEN: Church leaders not willing to take that risk are looking for alternatives. The Association of Lutheran Church Musicians has just released their contribution - more than a thousand vocalists and instrumental musicians from across the country assembling virtually for a Pentecost Sunday performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O DAY FULL OF GRACE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) For Christ bore our sins and not his own when he on the cross was hanging.

GJELTEN: Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.