Cellphone data shows coronavirus kept churchgoers at home in every state on Easter
Cellphone data tracking Americans’ behavior shows that the vast majority of people who might normally be in church stayed away on Easter, the day churches often pull in their highest attendance of the year.
Americans’ attendance at Sunday religious services began dropping dramatically in early March, according to a Washington Post analysis of mobile location data provided by SafeGraph, a company that aggregates location data from tens of millions of devices and compares it with building footprints of all types, including grocery stores, schools and religious organizations.
By then, many states had started to restrict large gatherings, and several denominations had halted in-person worship services in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
State leaders’ bans on mass gatherings have been controversial in some states, including Kansas, Kentucky and Wisconsin, and churches across the country have filed lawsuits challenging restrictions.
Despite some protests, the vast majority of churches nationwide have shut down, and people largely stayed home in the first weeks of April. Only 3 percent of typical churchgoers said in a PRRI poll that they would attend in-person Easter services on April 12, while 61 percent said they would participate online or on TV.
The mobile data shows how religious attendance changed in each state. For instance, in Utah, which has a high percentage of Mormons, attendance dropped on March 15 after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints halted public worship services worldwide; the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City also suspended public Mass.
The state of Georgia saw the largest drop in church attendance on Easter Sunday, an estimated 90 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to an analysis of SafeGraph data. The state, which is one of the most religious in the country, is home to several high-profile megachurches, many of which hosted services online even before the coronavirus pandemic or had resources to move virtually once restrictions were in place.
The shift has been a struggle for churches that have older members, including First Baptist Atlanta, which has several thousand members, said member Ruth Malhotra. Leaders had to warn members in an email that the church doors would be locked after receiving a high volume of calls asking if the church would hold in-person services.
The church, which had never held online services before, asked people to take pictures of themselves with their Communion table setup and send them in so other members could see them, Malhotra said. “A lot of people are not accustomed to engaging like that,” she said. “As we see more and more of the older generation on social media because of their grandkids and wanting to see pictures, it helps.”
Online platforms that host church services have seen a huge spike in activity. Since March 1, 25,000 new churches have signed up for the free online platform that Life.Church in Oklahoma created, a spokeswoman for the church said. As churches used a variety of platforms like Zoom and Facebook, 10 million unique devices alone joined Life.Church’s “Church Online” platform on Easter.
Easter was also the most active day ever for YouVersion, a Bible app that Life.Church developed. During the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, the app saw 14.1 million Bible verses shared, a 30 percent increase from the same week in 2019.
The mobile data showed that some people still gathered at their houses of worship. West Virginia’s Easter Sunday attendance saw the smallest drop — 70 percent — between 2019 and 2020, according to SafeGraph data. Some pastors in the state, which like Georgia is considered highly religious, believe that may be because drive-in services were a popular choice for churches.
Paul Chapman, senior pastor of Beckley Praise Church in Beckley, W.Va., said he chose to have drive-in services for Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday even though members could stay at home and watch services on Facebook.
“It was a way for people to get out of the house,” said Chapman, who conducted the services inside the locked building while cars filled the parking lot. “Even though they didn’t have contact with each other, they could wave. Some of our older people hadn’t been out of the house since the governor’s order.”
Chapman signed a contract to broadcast the services on an AM and FM station, a popular option for the older members who attended the services in their cars, and members either listened on the radio station or watched on Facebook on their mobile devices.
As governors across the country started issuing stay-at-home orders and shut down schools and businesses, churches began to follow. Several pastors who spoke to The Post said they made their decisions to stop services based on when the schools in their areas closed.
As some Americans have expressed a high desire to restart religious services soon, one Catholic diocese in New Mexico announced this week that it will become the first diocese to reopen churches for limited public Mass, despite the governor’s stay-at-home orders and recommendations to not hold gatherings.
About this story
Data for this story was provided by SafeGraph, a company that aggregates location data from tens of millions of devices and compares it with building footprints. The number of mobile devices recorded fluctuates, so The Post normalized the data according to how many devices reported each day. SafeGraph determined how many devices “visited” religious organizations according to the definition by the North American Industry Classification System.