A single church service in Frankfurt, Germany, held in early May, appears to have led at least 40 reported cases of coronavirus in the area, according to a report by the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.
The outbreak highlights the risks associated with easing lockdowns, even in countries that have succeeded check the spread of the virus relatively good. And it also serves as a reminder of the acute threat posed Super Spreader Events with crowds, an urgent concern in the US, as President Donald Trump encourages rural churches to reopen their doors to worshipers.
Rene Gottschalk, the head of the Frankfurt health authority, said that “the vast majority of [those infected] are not particularly ill ”, and that only one person has been hospitalized so far.
The event’s standout feature is how many people appear to have contracted the coronavirus at the same time – all while the church worked to promote social distance and hygiene.
The Baptist Church had suspended services in March in accordance with government orders to shut them down, but resumed them after Germany eased restrictions on May 1. Reportedly followed government guidelines for services, including reductions on the total number of people allowed in the church and a requirement of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) between congregations.
But a service held on May 10 has led to dozens of infections and it seems the source of at least 16 cases in the city of Hanau, 15 miles east of Frankfurt. The city subsequently canceled other religious gatherings in the area due to the risk of further spread.
The Frankfurt case recalls the risks of crowds in confined spaces
The community spread in Frankfurt is notable for showing how easily increases can occur in Covid-19 cases, even in countries with a relatively manageable overall number of cases. Germany smoothed the curve of new infections fairly quickly and has a low death rate compared to its neighbors in Europe. But since the closure eased in May, the number has fallen Increased, raising questions about how to strike the right balance between public security and social and economic needs to keep the country running.
Experts have long warned that crowd events, such as concerts, sporting events, and religious service gatherings, are a risky environment for the virus to spread. But despite this, President Trump has insisted in the U.S. that churches be reopened as soon as possible.
At a news conference on Friday, Trump said that governors should “reopen” churches at this time and that if they refuse to do so, he will “lift the governors.” As Ian Millhiser of Vox explained, he can’t really do that, but the Frankfurt case illustrates why reopening places of worship are a concern.
Worshipers in Frankfurt maintained social distance, but as Vox’s Brian Resnick explained, that may not always be enough if many breathing droplets are ejected into a confined space:
The main way people get sick with SARS-CoV-2 is from respiratory droplets spread between people up close. The risk of contracting the coronavirus, simply put, “breathes everyone’s breath,” said Charles Haas, an environmental engineer at Drexel University. Droplets fly out of people’s mouths and noses when they breathe, talk or sneeze. Other people can breathe them in. That’s the biggest risk and that’s why face masks are an essential precaution (they help prevent the droplets from spitting far from someone’s mouth or nose).
A crowded covered place, with poor ventilation, filled with people talking, screaming or singing for hours is the most risky scenario. A sparsely populated interior with open windows is less risky (but not completely safe). Run quickly past another jogger on the other side of the spectrum; minimal risk.
Given these risks, there is concern that the US could see an infection incidence comparable to the Frankfurt case if churches reopen – especially if there is poor social distance. And given both Trump’s advocacy on this issue and houses of worship are allowed open in some statesthat concern is not abstract. That means it will be important not only for Germany, but also for the US and other countries to find ways to reduce the risk of infection in places like the Church of Frankfurt.