Some religion leaders defiant, others clear about COVID-19 outbreaks

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The day after the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced an outbreak at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Pastor Todd Bell stood in his pulpit to serve in person.

The state was in the process of tracking down a “super-spreader wedding event” and investigating whether Calvary Baptist was connected. After members of the church choir stood shoulder to shoulder on the stage and sang exposed, Bell turned his attention to the outbreak. He railed against public health officials for interfering in Church affairs.

“You are looking at a freedom lover!” Bell told the community. “I – love – freedom. And I want the people of God to enjoy freedom!”

Bell said wearing masks was like trying to keep a mosquito away with a chain link fence. His response received heavy criticism and national media attention. Ultimately, nine cases were identified in the Calvary Baptist Church. Since then, at least half a dozen other Maine communities have erupted. Many religious leaders have shied away from attention. However, Pastor Matt Burden of Second Baptist Church in Calais, Maine, has taken a more public health approach. When some members of his community tested positive for COVID-19, he posted a Facebook video to spread the word.

“It’s been a crazy week,” he says in the video, sitting with his little daughter by his side on a couch in his house. “We would definitely like to recommend anyone in our church family who has any symptoms or the like. Please isolate yourself and get tested.”

This may seem like a natural reaction, but Burden says there is a strong temptation to keep this type of situation under wraps.

“It would have been a much easier way for me if I hadn’t opened my mouth so much,” he says now.

This is because the Second Baptist Church was put under a magnifying glass when it was opened. Urging parishioners to get tested meant more COVID-19 cases would likely be discovered and linked to the church. There have been more than two dozen cases to date. It is the second largest church breakout in Maine. According to Burden, the situation was particularly daunting because he had taken security measures. The church held two services to contain the crowd and rappelled down pews to socially distance itself. Masks were recommended but not required during the service.

“It was really hard to be honest,” says Burden. Calais is a rural town of 3,000 people on the border with Canada. “We were in an area that wasn’t badly affected by the coronavirus for most of the summer, early fall. And we were one of the most cautious institutions in town. Even in my own community, people have been very supportive. They are willing to follow the rules, but some people feel, “Why are we doing all these things?”

The director of the CDC in Maine, Dr. Nirav Shah says churches are of particular concern when it comes to the coronavirus.

“Some of the things that COVID-19 can create are literally the reasons you go to church – fellowship, close fellowship, singing,” he says.

When outbreaks break out in places of worship, Shah requires a more skillful response than in other settings, according to Shah.

“I think it’s safe to say that those who go to different places of worship have felt besieged for the past 2,000 to 3,000 years, regardless of their beliefs,” he says.

Building trust, says Shah, is the biggest challenge. But he doesn’t blame people for being reluctant to share.

“It’s my job to build that trust and convince them that sharing who they were on duty with is being used forever,” he says.

Pastor Burden’s church decided that it was in the best interest of the congregation to be transparent, but he understands why some churches are reluctant. There is a feeling, he says, that churches are singled out for guilt in a way that other institutions or corporations don’t.

“I’m very sympathetic to the way many other churches are trying to wrestle with it. It’s not an easy thing,” says the pastor.

Burden regularly provides information on his community’s COVID-19 situation in Facebook posts and says its transparency has attracted some positive attention. Several pastors have called to offer support. Others have also asked how to avoid an outbreak.

“It’s an interesting phone call from someone who wants to know how not to end up like you,” he says. “But I understand where they’re from, don’t I?”

Because according to Burden, no community wants to get into the headlines of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Copyright 2020 Maine Public. To see more, visit Maine Public.

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