This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13, 2020, with more information.
A church in Ringgold is now linked to three confirmed COVID-19 cases involving multiple families.
Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle announced Tuesday it would suspend in-person church services because of COVID-19 concerns — just 16 days after church members were allowed to return to the sanctuary for service.
"Our hearts are heavy as some of our families are dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 virus, and we ask for your prayers for each of them as they follow the prescribed protocol and recuperate at home," the church said in its Tuesday announcement.
Pastor Justin Gazaway welcomed members back to the church on April 26 for services, though members could still livestream the services if they wanted.
The church was one of the first in the area to reopen after doing online-only services to stop the spread of COVID-19. Church members said people in attendance wore masks and stayed distant during the services. No one shook hands or hugged one another, they said.
The first case linked to the church was announced Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, the Northwest Georgia Public Health District was investigating a total of three cases linked to the church.
The church's decision to re-suspend in-person services comes as houses of worship throughout the region weigh whether to reopen.
Health experts have warned returning to large gatherings too soon could spike the number of coronavirus cases. In some rural communities, churches are the closest and most frequent gathering, raising the risk of outbreaks in less urban environments.
Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle is located outside the Ringgold city limits but Mayor Nick Millwood said the safest option for church services will be to continue doing online services for several weeks. As of Wednesday, Catoosa County had 62 COVID-19 cases and no deaths, something Millwood said has been a good sign as the state has more than 35,300 cases and at least 1,505 deaths.
But the growing hotspot of cases linked to the church is concerning, Millwood said.
"The message is to continue to be careful," he said. "If you have any kind of gatherings, be exceptionally safe and try to adhere as best as you can to the social distancing guidelines."
Georgia began its shutdown in mid-March and started allowing businesses to reopen in late April. Local governments do not have the ability to create measures stricter than the governor's directivers, Millwood said. However, he is unsure whether the news of new cases or any stricter guidance would change people's minds over whether it is safe to return to church services or other businesses.
"The population seems to be solidifying around either a 'stay locked down' or 'open everything up' mindset, and generally I don't think it's going to have a large impact on their minds on that," Millwood said.
Pastor Mike Gurganus of Ringgold Church of Christ said his church will continue holding in-person services, though he will reconsider if there is a major spike in cases. The church reopened on Sunday with about 40% of the members in attendance, he said.
"We are trying to observe every single rule that the governor has," Gurganus said. "Almost every single one was masked, and we all observed the six-plus-foot rule."
Gurganus said if using masks and keeping distance between people can be safe in grocery stores, it can be in church, too.
New Liberty Baptist Church, three miles north of Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle, resumed in-person services on May 10 after weeks of drive-in services. The church held two morning services, home pews were marked off and people were encouraged not to pick up song books in the church, said Tommy Crider, interim pastor.
The church is planning to have another in-person service this Sunday and is monitoring the situation week by week. The growing number of cases at the nearby Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle does make Crider concerned, he said.
For the time being, Crider said he is encouraging his 94-year-old mother to avoid going to her home church.