Baltimore City health officials have approved the coronavirus safety plan submitted by a church that operated for more than two weeks in violation of a closure notice.
The approval means the Greater Grace World Outreach Church in Frankford is back in good standing with the city, after it held services even though it was supposed to have closed March 14 for not following masking and distancing rules due to the pandemic.
In its two-page safety plan, the church states that it will prominently display signage at building entrances that explain the current health orders, and will hand out masks to those who enter without a mask. All staff members will wear masks, and there will no longer be areas in the chapel designated as “mask optional.” Chairs will also be moved back 15 feet from the main stage, and separated so that groups can sit six feet apart, according to the plan.
Despite the changes outlined in the plan, the church’s chief of operations, Peter Taggart, maintained the congregation’s right to religious freedom. Greater Grace has about 1,500 members at its Baltimore location, according to its website.
[Our church] “asserts the constitutional rights of freedom in the exercise of religion established by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Taggart wrote in the plan.
Before the new safety plan’s approval, the city health department had been “working with the leadership of Greater Grace World Outreach to ensure compliance” with the city’s health orders, department spokesman Adam Abadir said in a statement.
“Our teams will continue to work with businesses and houses of worship to respond to, educate, and enforce violations of COVID-19 safety protocols, as needed,” Abadir wrote.
The health department did not respond to questions about whether the church faced any fines or other disciplinary action for violating its closure order.
During the weeks that the building was supposed to be closed to the public, the church held numerous large services and hosted baptisms and a play, livestreaming them online.
Soon after they were cited, the megachurch’s pastor, Thomas Schaller, spoke defiantly against the city’s rules, saying that he couldn’t turn away worshippers who didn’t wish to wear masks.
“This is not a barroom. This is not Home Depot. This is not a bowling alley. This is not the Baltimore Oriole stadium,” Schaller said during one service. “This is a church. And when we come in here, God is in charge.”
One section of the church’s auditorium was set aside for mask-wearing and social distancing, but elsewhere, it was “parishioner’s choice.”
In recent days, before the plan was approved, some of the leaders softened their stance.
For instance, during a March 28 Sunday service, church leaders asked parishioners to wear masks “for the sake of the neighbors” in spite of their philosophical disagreements with coronavirus rules.
“We will be taking temperatures and we will be asking you for the sake of the visitors that are coming in — and they are more sensitive than we are to the instructions that are given by our city — so masks and distancing,” said Pastor Steve Andrulonis, who called himself the “bad cop” to Schaller’s “good cop.”
He made the statement shortly after more than a dozen people, most not wearing masks, briefly crowded onto the stage to be recognized for participating in the church’s upcoming play.
Andrulonis said during the service that about 400 seats will be available in the church’s auditorium going forward. The church auditorium can have a maximum of 550 people, Abadir said, given the city’s current 50% capacity rules.
“It might not be possible for you to be in this physical space every night,” Andrulonis said to parishioners Sunday.
City Councilwoman Danielle McCray, who represents the district that includes Greater Grace, said the health department handled the situation appropriately.
“Our health department, they have the tall order of working with all of our faith-based institutions throughout the city, all of our businesses throughout the city. They’re doing a good job of just making sure that we are working within communities to make sure that we can get back to a sense of normalcy. And I think that they did so here,” McCray said.
The actions of one church shouldn’t take away from the work of other places of worship that have been on the front lines of fighting the pandemic in Baltimore, by hosting testing sessions, vaccination clinics and food pantries, she said.
“They’ve been in this with us this whole time,” McCray said.