The last time members of Houston’s Memorial Church of Christ met on March 8, there was a crowd of about 800. Seeing a potential risk to his congregation, David Duncan — after conferring with other church leaders — did what he deemed necessary: He shut down.
Staff broke the news March 12 via robocalls and a posting to Facebook: The church would move from in-person gatherings to virtual meetings the next Sunday and the Sundays to come.
“Two months ago, I would’ve been saying, ‘Go over and help your neighbor, shake hands and invite them to lunch,’ and now I’m saying, ‘Stay at least 6 feet away,’” Duncan said.
As far as Churches of Christ in Houston go, he said, his was one of the first to close. At the time, Harris County was still 12 days away from issuing a shelter-in-place order to halt the spread of the new coronavirus; Gov. Greg Abbott was 19 days shy of declaring churches and other houses of worship “essential” services, allowing them to stay open during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Duncan — who has been the preaching minister at the Houston-area church for 14 years — could have stayed open for business. But like an untold number of unlikely leaders, including other church leaders, restaurateurs, and owners of businesses deemed “essential” by local and state officials, he went beyond what his government demanded and voluntarily closed his doors.
Duncan said he made his decision because he was troubled by the idea that as the coronavirus spread — upending lives and shuttering businesses nationwide — his multigenerational congregation of families with infants and 95-year-olds was still allowed to meet.
With spring break approaching and the contagion only getting worse, Duncan thought church attendance would slow on its own. But on March 8, Duncan remembers seeing a flock of parishioners of all ages. People talked generally about the virus, he recalled, but no one, including himself, had a full grasp of what was on the immediate horizon.
At that time, “it was more something in China that had been brought to the West Coast. None of us could’ve fathomed it coming here,” Duncan said of Houston. (Harris County had more than 2,100 confirmed cases Wednesday.)
Abbott, a Republican, told Texans to stay at home through April unless they were part of an essential service — like those offering takeout or delivery, grocery store workers and health care professionals.
He included churches on that essential list, saying, in part, that it’s a First Amendment issue. And he actively encouraged restaurants to stay open for takeout — and for residents to use their services frequently to support the economy.
But some business owners are placing public health over their pocketbooks.
In Austin, Adam Orman, the co-founder and general manager of the Italian restaurant L’Oca d’Oro, decided to temporarily close after switching to take-out only for 10 days.
“This is the only way to be sure that we’re not making everybody sicker,” Orman said. “We wanted to be able to be an example.”
For Orman, shutting down was a choice between the public health of his employees and clientele versus the value of the service he was offering.
The decision was tough, but he couldn’t keep customers from coming in and saying hello when they picked up their meals, or asking to use the bathroom. Plus, managing a bustling joint has its downsides: Staying busy meant keeping the restaurant more sanitized, which meant having more staff interacting with one another, which meant increasing the chances of spreading the virus.
“It’s a crazy Catch-22 — the better business is, the harder it was going to be to stay clean,” Orman said. Plus, he doesn’t believe takeout service is essential.
“If we’re going to be in this world where we can’t get tests and we know that there are asymptomatic carriers, how could we continue to have so many businesses still be open?” he said.
Orman said customers were completely supportive of his decision to shut down. On his last night in business, a Thursday, there were between 60 and 70 takeout orders in 90 minutes. “We did like a normal Saturday night,” Orman recalled. “We were swamped.”
Sherri Greenberg, a professor of practice at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said it’s not unusual for local elected officials or laypeople to step up in lieu of broader statewide or federal guidance.
“The people who have their pulse closest to what’s going on in their community are those who are elected locally,” she said. “Local government is where so much of society takes place.”
As for pastors and restaurant managers taking action before they see action locally or statewide, Greenberg put it simply: “They live in these communities. These are their employees and neighbors, and they feel that sense of connection and responsibility” to others.
That was how Suzanne Daniels, the owner of Brentwood Social House, a family-friendly coffee shop in Austin, felt when she closed her dining room two days before Mayor Steve Adler ordered all restaurants closed.
“We just felt that it was our social responsibility,” she said.
Daniels has been offering takeout, though business hasn’t exactly been booming. She saw sales decrease about 60% to 65% during the first week and a half after the city mandated restaurant closures. Since then, she’s seen money slowly trickle in with the addition of marketplace grocery items and frozen take-and-bake items available on the shop’s website.
But closing shop early, Daniels said, “was necessary.”
Joe Tognetti, the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Rio Grande City, echoed that sentiment. For weeks in early March, he watched members of his small, predominantly Hispanic congregation shake hands, hug or kiss on the cheek. During services March 8, he told people that if they didn’t feel comfortable touching one another, they could put their hands over their hearts, turn to their neighbors and bow.
The next Sunday, he made a curious observation: Older people, who tend to be more vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, were still showing up in large numbers to the church. Younger families chose to stay home.
After conferring with some of his staff members and colleagues, Tognetti broke the news to all 70 of his congregants via personal phone calls: The church was going virtual.
“I anticipated members would be upset, and there were a couple people where I could tell they were disappointed, but there was also a sense of resignation,” he said. “They figured we would have to do this eventually anyways.”
Tognetti says that “it will almost certainly be months” before he feels comfortable meeting in person again and that parishioners have warmed up to the church’s alternative plans, which now include a bilingual — though English-leaning — online worship service at 10 a.m. every Sunday.
“My hope is that being apart physically helps people understand how essential and important community is,” Tognetti said.
Still, not every business and church has decided to temporarily close. After Abbott signed his executive order allowing churches to meet with limitations, several continued in-person services.
Some other officials, meanwhile, have expressed worry about the impact of businesses closing.
On March 23, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, said on Fox News that he and other senior citizens might rather risk perishing from the coronavirus than watch the economy decline. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” he told host Tucker Carlson.
After drawing a considerable amount of flack for his comments, Patrick later clarified his remarks to say that “at some point, sooner rather than later, we must get back to work before our nation totally collapses.”
Alicia Jones felt that economic pain when she closed her mobile photo booth business early March 13, opting to skip the last free weekend of pay while bars and restaurants around her were still open for business.
“I’m in a very social and interactive industry, so the least I can do is tell the people who follow me on Instagram and Facebook, ‘I’m doing my part, and it’d be really cool if you could as well,’” Jones said.
“If we all do this together,” she said, laughing, “maybe we can all drink together when this is all over.”
Jones is one of many Texans without a paycheck, but she still feels she’s one of the luckier ones. Despite a spate of weddings and other springtime events being canceled, Jones said most of her clients haven’t asked for refunds and have rebooked for later in the year.
The decision to close early and lose an estimated $1,000 in revenue was a tough choice — but the safe and healthy one, Jones said.
For Duncan, the Houston-area church pastor, there was a similar feeling. And he’s seen good news: Since the church moved to remote services, his online crowd has extended well beyond the Houston area.
“A month ago, I had never heard of Zoom, but now I’m on it everyday,” he joked. “So we are trying to keep people together — but separate.
“We didn’t necessarily think it would be a unanimous decision where every member thought it’d be a good idea, because meeting every Sunday is very important to us,” he said. “But this is something we knew we had to do, and it’s the best thing for us right now.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin; the LBJ School of Public Affairs; and Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.