As states across the country lift some or even all restrictions intended to slow the spread of coronavirus, new hotspots of the virus erupt in churches from Oregon to Kentucky to West Virginia. Baptist churches are among those hit with infections after resuming in-person services.
As of June 23, more than 9.2 million people globally have been infected with the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, and more than 475,000 have died. In the U.S., the nation with the most infections and deaths, more than 2.4 million people have tested positive and more than 122,000 have died.
West Virginia officials last week announced six hotspots tied to churches across the state, which had been one of the least-impacted states. Two of the three congregations mentioned by name are Baptist. Active cases in the state jumped by 28% over the last two weeks due to the church outbreaks and people traveling to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for vacation.
“While church is surely the most sacred ground, it is the spot where we’re singing and we are projecting our voices and we’re closer together and there’s more elderly there and all the things that make it just ripe for an outbreak,” West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said during a June 17 briefing as he announced the church hotspots.
The largest church hotspot in the state is Graystone Baptist Church, an independent Baptist congregation in Lewisburg near the Virginia border. At least 41 positive cases have been tied to the church where fewer than 100 people were attending recent services. The pastor, Youel Altizer, said they had hand sanitizing stations and stopped fellowship times, but admitted “we could have done better” by requiring masks instead of just urging it.
“After talking to the doctor, she said the chances of getting the virus really drops and goes down when people are wearing masks,” Alitizer added, “we are going to be stronger on our face masks. I will try and persuade the congregation to wear masks.”
The church switched back to online services after the outbreak.
Although Justice hasn’t heeded calls to mandate wearing masks in public, he did encourage churches to do so. He is a member of First Baptist Church in Beckley, which is affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA.
“Church is our most sacred ground. Absolutely, you have got to wear a mask. And absolutely, you have got to stay every other pew. And if people aren’t doing it, for crying out loud step up and say something,” Justice said during a June 19 briefing.
Another congregation, First Baptist Church in Wheeling, also saw nine people test positive — with more results still pending — after they resumed services. The church near the Pennsylvania border is not affiliated with a national denomination but is part of the state American Baptist convention and local American Baptist association.
Videos of recent services on their website show that while pews are marked off to help with social distancing, no one is wearing masks and they are engaging in congregational singing. After news of the outbreak emerged, the church again held worship in person Sunday (June 21) — in addition to livestreaming. The smaller crowd continued with congregation singing and a lack of mask wearing as they welcomed a candidate being considered for a staff position — and set out cupcakes for people to grab.
Darrin Wright, the church’s senior pastor, alluded to the outbreak during Sunday’s service as “the events that our church has dealt with this past week.” He then read Psalm 16 as “a fitting reminder” that “we will not be shaken.”
On the other side of the country, at least 236 people tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak linked to a Pentecostal church in Union County, Oregon, a rural area in the northeast corner of the state. The infected persons account for about 1% of the county’s total population and 89% of the county’s COVID-19 cases. The church not only held in-person services in violation of local mass gathering bans, but also reportedly didn’t follow social distancing guidelines or other health recommendations.
Other COVID-19 outbreaks tied to churches in June include at least 18 people in Springfield, Ohio, and at least six cases in Pike County, Kentucky near West Virginia.
In the middle of the Kentucky, another congregation also saw an outbreak. Clays Mills Baptist Church in Jessamine County suspended in-person services after at least 18 members tested positive for COVID-19 in late May. The church’s pastor, Jeff Fugate, insists there’s “no indication” that people contracted it at church. However, the executive director of the county’s health department said they traced the first case to a person who attended the church while symptomatic and then had contact with the others there.
In April, Fugate spoke at a political rally urging Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear to lift mass gathering bans on churches. After a judge blocked enforcement of Beshear’s ban in a case brought by another Baptist church, Fugate resumed in-person services in May. However, they shifted to livestreaming in early June and then outdoor worship under a big tent later in the month.
Beshear, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were Baptist preachers, said the recent outbreak showed Fugate was wrong in April when insisting he could safely open. Fugate responded by blaming the media for linking the outbreak to the church and attacked Beshear for “bias and misinformation.”