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Maskless church service was unfortunate

An Ashland church that held an in-person Christmas Eve service attended by unmasked congregants likely won’t face any official repercussions. But the wider community has made its displeasure known, and for good reason.

A video posted to Twitter by a Jefferson Public Radio reporter showed people standing shoulder to shoulder, speaking or singing in unison, and mostly unmasked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers singing in groups a particularly high-risk activity because people singing expel large quantities of fine droplets that can transmit the novel coronavirus to others.

In one widely reported case, a single infected person who attended choir practices in Washington state last May led to 53 other choir members becoming sick. Two died.

That case occurred months ago, when much was still unknown about how the virus is transmitted. At this point, there is simply no excuse for the kind of risky behavior practiced and encouraged by The Story church. The church responded to concerned community members in a statement that said in part, “Some people do choose to wear masks and social distance and some choose not to. We are respecting the choice of each person and trust that informed individuals will make the healthiest choice for themselves and their families about using masks and distancing. We believe there is no shame in whatever decision each individual makes.”

Shaming is not the point here. Graffiti sprayed on the church walls after the video appeared was inappropriate and counterproductive.

But the issue is not “informed individuals” making choices “for themselves and their families.” If reckless behavior threatened only those individuals engaging in it and their families, that would be one thing. But viruses do not confine themselves to individuals and their close relatives. Every person who attended that service was making a choice to endanger no only themselves but the wider community as well.

Nor is this a case of defending freedom of religion against heavy-handed government. Before Christmas, Gov. Kate Brown changed restrictions on indoor religious gatherings to “guidelines,” likely in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue. That means The Story probably won’t face any official repercussions for its maskless service.

That doesn’t mean it was responsible, or safe. In response to the state rule change, the Archdiocese of Portland announced that Christmas services would be held, but attendance would be limited, distancing would be maintained and masks would be required.

It’s unfortunate that The Story’s leaders did not take similar precautions.