SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is temporarily closing two temples, quarantining missionaries in three countries and limiting or even canceling weekly worship services in some areas of the world in an effort to protect against the spreading coronavirus.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to closely monitor the spread of the coronavirus and its impact on people around the world, including the ability of our missionaries to effectively find and teach and of our members to gather for worship,” the church said in a statement.
“We pray for all those affected by this illness and plead for the Lord’s blessings during this difficult time.”
The Seoul Korea Temple will be closed beginning Saturday, which follows the closure of the Taipei Taiwan Temple, according to a news release issued Friday afternoon. The Hong Kong Temple closed in July for a three-year renovation.
Such actions are not without precedent. The church closed temples in 1918-19 due to the global Spanish flu pandemic that killed 50 million people. The church also canceled worship services periodically during that time and postponed its April general conference for two months in 1919 as a precaution.
Earlier this month, the church transferred or released all 125 of its missionaries serving in Hong Kong due to the coronavirus outbreak. Those being transferred are finishing 14 days in isolation and preparing to leave for their new assignments. They are expected to return when the crisis abates.
Church leaders now are limiting the movements of its missionaries in five other countries.
“The manner in which people are meeting, greeting one another and gathering has changed because of concerns about the virus, making missionary work especially difficult,” the statement said.
Missionaries in Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand have been instructed to stay in their apartments except to shop for supplies, exercise or attend church if services are being held.
“Whenever they are outside, missionaries are urged to stay at least six feet away from others and avoid any personal interaction,” the statement said. “During this time, missionaries will teach people through phone calls or other technology. These guidelines will be in place until further notice. Additionally, all missionaries who were preparing to arrive in these three missions will be temporarily reassigned to other countries until the situation stabilizes.”
Missionaries in Mongolia are under the same limitations but may make home visits when invited.
Finally, missionaries in South Korea also will begin to self-isolate.
The church does not conduct missionary work in mainland China, according to a statement issued last month.
Friday’s announcement by the church comes after a surging outbreak of coronavirus in South Korea, where most of the new cases are tied to the Shincheonji church. Seoul required that church to shut down its three buildings in the city. Shincheonji leaders closed all of their buildings in Korea, saying worship services will be provided on YouTube, according to USA Today.
The coronavirus now has killed 2,248 people amid 76,787 confirmed cases worldwide. Most are in China, but the new cases in Korea and others in Iran raised the alarm that the outbreak could become a pandemic, spreading to multiple continents.
The director-general of the World Health Organization said Friday that “the window of opportunity is narrowing” to contain the global spread of the virus.
”We still have a chance to contain it, but we have to prepare for other eventualities,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “This could go in many directions, it could be even messy. It is in our hands now ... we can reverse or avert serious crisis. If we don’t, if we squander this opportunity, then there could be a serious problem on our hands.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is following WHO recommendations, as well as those made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the church’s news release said.
“All missionaries, regardless of where they are serving, have been reminded to follow basic preventative health practices to avoid illness. It is important to note that young missionaries are not generally considered to be at risk for serious complications from the coronavirus.”
Other areas of the world are quarantining people who have traveled to affected areas or have come into contact with people who have returned from those areas with the virus. For example, Italy ordered a mandatory quarantine for 50,000 people in 10 towns after seeing 14 new cases in one day, according to The New York Times.
The coronavirus is new and deadly, but other strains of the flu are also causing illness and death this winter.
The 2019-20 flu season in the United States alone has seen 26 million cases of flu-like symptoms, 250,000 hospitalizations and more than 14,000 deaths, according to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as reported Friday by U.S. News & World Report.
The chief culprits are influenza A with the H1N1 strain, though this year’s vaccine is a good match for it, and influenza B, for which the vaccine is 50% effective.
The CDC reported flu-related hospitalizations this year are similar to recent flu seasons. The percentage of deaths remains about half a percentage point below the epidemic threshold of 7.3%.