Protesters wave signs and honk their horns near the Virginia State Capitol, during a "Reopen Virginia Rally" in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury

Folks who criticized Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam for limiting the size of church services the past several weeks – including opportunists in the Trump administration – acted as if the guv were denying residents their right to practice religion. 

It’s an odd stance since the regulations, in the face of this awful novel coronavirus pandemic, were intended to keep people alive. One of Northam’s recent executive orders banned gatherings of more than 10 people at particular establishments; this was unfortunate because the March edict was just days before Easter and Passover. 

Yet given the very real threat of transmission of the novel coronavirus in close quarters, the regulation was necessary. Besides, haven’t Christians heard of the biblical passage in Matthew, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”? 

The religious edifice is a big part of the service. It’s not the only part.

I’ve spent the past several Sundays watching Mass on Facebook Live. It’s not the same as being in the pews of my parish church, of course, but I understand the restrictions. We try to adapt – instead of plunging headlong into preventable danger.

I note all of this as a prelude to the phased easing of restrictions taking place in the commonwealth Friday, including greater access to faith services this weekend. Among the requirements: Places of worship must limit occupancy to 50 percent, individuals must stay at least 6 feet apart, and cleaning and disinfecting of frequently used services must be done before and after services.

The state witnessed a kerfuffle extending beyond its borders when Lighthouse Fellowship Church, on the Eastern Shore, challenged a summons it received for letting 16 people attend services on Palm Sunday. 

The church then sued in federal court, and the U.S. Department of Justice sided with the church. Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House Coronavirus Task Force, weighed in, saying in a radio interview that “even in the midst of a national emergency, every American enjoys our cherished liberties, including the freedom of religion.”

That’s particularly rich since the Trump administration has done such a lousy job of managing the pandemic throughout, from acting too slowly as large numbers of infections in the United States were predicted; to failing to provide enough gear for health care workers; to not having enough tests for every American who wanted one. 

The death toll nationwide has reached more than 83,000 since Feb. 29, and that’s probably an undercount.

Virginians might have forgotten why Northam put the kibosh on close contact, but there are several tragic examples of religious-related infections:

The Richmond Free Press reported a three-night religious revival there in early March drew more than 1,200 people and apparently helped spread the coronavirus in the black community. A half-dozen participants died after the revival, though early reports confirmed only one – so far – resulted from COVID-19.

• Bishop Gerald Glenn, a prominent Richmond-area evangelical pastor, died in April after contracting the novel coronavirus. He had preached about the virus in March, before he became sick, encouraging people not to be afraid, The Washington Post reported.

A Virginia-based preacher and blues guitarist died of COVID-19 after ministering in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Landon Spradlin, 66, and his wife had preached annually in that city. 

Sure, Northam might have relaxed the rules earlier for religious services. Sixteen people could’ve easily spread out in the sanctuary meant for 250 at Lighthouse Fellowship. Regulations were one-size-fits-all.

But even today, many officials and residents in Virginia are playing things close to the vest. 

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus this week asked the governor to postpone reopening most of the state, saying it would make black and brown Virginians “guinea pigs for our economy.” Blacks and Latinos have suffered disproportionate infection rates.

Northern Virginia leaders, meanwhile, received an exemption from reopening Friday, as did Accomack County and the City of Richmond. Shutdown rules there will remain in place for another two weeks. 

I’ll pray that infections and deaths don’t skyrocket during the state’s newest phase of restrictions. That’s because this latest experiment is blessed more by optimism, than certainty.