DEFIANT pastors are continuing to hold services on Palm Sunday in order to fight Satan, despite the coronavirus spreading like "fire".
Churches across the US are encouraging worshippers to turn out for the holy day, in some cases flagrantly flouting local stay at home orders.
Kelly Burton, a pastor at Lone Star Baptist Church in Texas, has been holding services in parking lots, and issued a call on Saturday to encourage churchgoers to attend the 10AM Palm Sunday mass.
"Satan's trying to keep us apart, he's trying to keep us from worshipping together," Burton said in a video posted to the church's Facebook page.
"But we're not going to let him win."
Burton added there would be no handshakes or hugs, and the congregation would need to stay in their car, but encouraged worshippers to come out for the service.
Texas does not currently have stay at home orders in place, and Governor Greg Abbott has excluded church services from his ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. Abbott said churches provided an "essential service" and so could remain operational.
Scientists and public health experts have warned religious services seem to be particularly conducive to COVID-19 transmission, according to the Texas Tribune.
Harvard University epidemiologist Bill Hanage told the paper exempting religious services from shelter-in-place orders is "an incredibly bad idea".
In California, Sacramento County officials have linked a Pentecostal church to 71 positive coronavirus cases, reported the Sacramento Bee.
Health officials are concerned members of Bethany Slavic Missionary Church are still holding meetings in private to conduct services.
In California's Thousand Oaks, in LA County, one pastor is openly defying the ban on large gatherings.
Rob McCoy, who leads Godspeak Calvary Chapel, is offering communion on Palm Sunday, but will encourage worshippers to stand six feet apart – as per nationwide social distancing guidelines.
"It's very important theologically that communion not be taken alone," McCoy told the LA Times.
"What we are doing is exercising our inalienable rights. Communion is non-negotiable for us."
Meanwhile in Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell planned to hold three services at his 1,000-member strong megachurch in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
"We're defying the rules because the commandment of God is to spread the Gospel," said Spell in an interview with Reuters.
The pastor of the Life Tabernacle church has already been hit with six misdemeanors after repeatedly ignoring state orders against large groups assembling.
"The church is the last force resisting the Antichrist, let us assemble regardless of what anyone says," he added.
Spell, who according to local news, claims his services cure cancer and HIV, said no "dictator law" should keep people from worshipping God.
Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter, and beginning of the Holy Week in Christian churches, commemorating Jesus entering Jerusalem.
Older Americans are much more likely to attend church than younger adults, according to research. The same group is also one of the most at risk demographics when it comes to becoming severely ill following infection from the virus.
In CDC guidance, directed specifically towards places of worship, religious leaders are told to identify services that might need to be "limited or temporarily discontinued during an outbreak".
"Find alternative solutions that will ensure continuity for the people you serve, especially vulnerable populations such as older adults," the guidance reads.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, Solid Rock Church has been told to stop holding large services by health officials and the local mayor.
Local mayor Jason Frentzel wrote to the church's pastors asking, "I implore you to please reconsider your choice to continue to offer in person services to your worshipers", the Journal News reported.
Ohio governor Mike DeWine said any pastor who brings people together "in close proximity to each other, a large group of people, is making a huge mistake".
But although the church has modified its services, it remains open.
"Our facility is large enough that we are able to easily ensure that everyone who is physically in the facility is practicing the physical distancing," the church said in a statement posted on its website.
"We are providing additional cleaning and hand sanitizing stations; and we are holding some services outside to allow for more distance."
On Sunday morning, Surgeon General Jerome Adams pleaded with the public to stay home, despite President Trump saying he was considering letting churches open to the public.
"We're trying to get people the science," Adams said during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. "The science says…this Palm Sunday, we need you to stay at home.
Cases in the US soared past 300,000, up 32,000 in just 24 hours, with deaths topping 8,400.
On Saturday President Trump warned that the US will suffer "a lot of death" as the country entered its "toughest" two weeks in the battle against coronavirus.
Speaking at his daily press briefing at The White House, Trump told the country to prepare for a “very deadly period" following the revelation of 1,497 deaths over the past 24 hours.
"Now, over the next week, two weeks, it's going to be a very, very deadly period, unfortunately," he said.
In the same briefing, Trump addressed the possibility of churches hosting services.
"I brought it up before, I said maybe we could allow special for churches, maybe we could talk about it, maybe we could allow them with great separation outside on Easter Sunday," he said. "I don't know, it's something we should talk about."New York has been the hardest hit state with 788 deaths in just 24 hours – the biggest surge in fatalities in the state since the crisis began, upping the total to 3,565 Saturday.Governor Andrew Cuomo has compared the disease's infection rate to fire, saying: "The fire, it doesn't max out in one place, but it consumes where it is and it's moving out."