WILMINGTON — The city’s police department is backing off from its early stance that ‘drive-in’ worship services are banned under state and county restrictions on public gatherings; the move comes after a local law firm challenged the police’s interpretation of the law as unconstitutional and presented a letter from the governor indicating they should be allowed.
While the Wilmington Police Department acknowledged that these services would not be considered a violation of social distancing rules, it continued to encourage houses of worship to hold ‘virtual’ services and noted that local health officials consider the ‘drive-in’ services “unnecessarily risky.”
On Wednesday evening, the Wilmington Police Department announced that so-called ‘drive-in’ services would not be allowed — even if congregants remained in their cars. Theses services had been planned by many area churches as a work-around to allow Easter mass or other services while adhering to strict statewide ban to gatherings of 10 or more people.
The following day, Coastal Legal Counsel challenged that interpretation as unconstitutional. The firm also presented a letter from Governor Roy Cooper to the state’s Sheriff’s Association, explicitly addressing ‘drive-in’ services. In that letter, Cooper wrote that these services “appear to be acceptable as long as individuals remain in their vehicles and avoid contact.”
On Thursday evening, the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) and the City of Wilmington announced they had consulted with Governor Cooper’s office and changed their interpretation of his regulations accordingly, saying the services “will not be considered a violation.”
According to WPD, health officials are still recommending that vehicles park six feet apart, that all passengers stay inside the vehicle, and that only “immediate family or members of the same household occupy the same vehicle.”
City officials have been in discussion with the Governor’s office today regarding “drive-in” worship services. While the Governor has advised local municipalities to follow the advice of local health officials, it is the Governor’s interpretation of his own order that “drive-in” worship services should be allowed if sufficient safety precautions are met. As a result, such services will not be considered a violation. Health department officials have established the following recommendations: all vehicles maintain a distance of at least six (6) feet from any other vehicle on all sides, all persons stay in their vehicles, and only immediate family or members of the same household occupy the same vehicle. It is further advised that services last no more than one hour in order to prevent people from needing to leave their vehicles for any reason, including going to the restroom. Again, holding such services is against the advice of local health professionals. Please keep in mind that vehicles may not obstruct any street or sidewalk.
While we realize the challenges of this pandemic present new and un-charted territory for us all, we appreciate the support and commitment of our local churches and houses of worship. We realize that their participation is critical to our community-wide success in flattening the curve and slowing the progress of this virus. We strongly urge all churches and houses of worship to continue with virtual services, including for Easter. We have spoken to our health department leaders, and they believe that we are at a critical stage in the effort to reduce the spread of the virus to a manageable level. They also believe that bringing congregations together, even if people remain in their vehicles, is unnecessarily risky at this time.