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US churches confront coronavirus restrictions for Easter

At the holiest time of year for Christians, churches across the United States are wrestling with how to hold services amid the coronavirus outbreak, and in some cases, that has set up showdowns with local governments over restrictions that prohibit large gatherings.

Many churches are offering parishioners livestreaming options so they can observe Good Friday and Easter on TVs, smartphones and computers. Others are sending worshipers to drive-in movie theatres for services.

Governors in several states have deemed church an "essential service", allowing Easter worship to proceed even as public health officials warn that large gatherings could be a major setback amid a pandemic that has killed more than 16,000 people in the US.

The restrictions have created conflicts with state and local authorities. Kansas lawmakers on Wednesday threw out an order by the governor that limited church gatherings to 10 people. A Georgia church where more than 30 people congregated inside a small building on Palm Sunday, prompting a visit from state troopers, plans to move forward with normal Easter worship.

The Reverand John Greiner said the Glorious Way Church in Houston, Texas initially moved services online after the county limited large gatherings, but his congregation will hold in-person services on Easter.

"We can't do what God called us to do on livestream," Greiner said.

The church has installed handwashing stations and rearranged the 1,000-person sanctuary to hold about 100 people with six or more feet (1.8m or more) between them, Greiner said. They plan to hold two abbreviated Easter services to accommodate everyone who wants to attend.

Churches such as The Center Arena in Orlando, Florida held in-person services on Palm Sunday and plan to do the same for Easter, Pastor Envor Moodley said. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican and close ally of President Donald Trump, exempted religious services from a stay-at-home order issued this month, although he said they must observe social distancing guidelines.

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