Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some Faith Leaders Defiant, Others Transparent Over COVID-19 Outbreaks


When an outbreak of COVID-19 happens at a church, it can attract scrutiny. As Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight reports, some church leaders respond defiantly while others take a more public health-minded approach.

PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: The first known COVID-19 outbreak at a church in Maine happened at the Calvary Baptist Church in the city of Sanford. At the time, the state CDC was tracing a superspreader wedding event and investigating whether the church was linked. The day after the state announced the outbreak, Pastor Todd Bell stood at his pulpit for in-person service.


TODD BELL: You're looking at a liberty lover.

WIGHT: He railed against public health officials for intervening in the church's affairs.


BELL: I love liberty, and I want the people of God to enjoy liberty.

WIGHT: Bell told his congregation that wearing masks was like trying to keep out a mosquito with a chain-link fence. His response drew fierce criticism. Ultimately, nine cases were identified at Calvary Baptist Church. Since then, at least a half-dozen other congregations in Maine have had outbreaks. But not all have responded with defiance.


MATT BURDEN: It's been kind of a crazy week.

WIGHT: That's Pastor Matt Burden of the Second Baptist Church in the city of Calais speaking in a Facebook video.


BURDEN: We have had a few cases of confirmed positive coronavirus pop up among some of our church people.

WIGHT: In his Facebook video, Burden asks for prayers for people who tested positive and urges those with symptoms to isolate and get tested. This may seem like a natural response, but Burden says the temptation to keep the situation under wraps is strong.

BURDEN: It would have been a really - a lot easier road for me if I hadn't opened my mouth so much.

WIGHT: Opening up put the Second Baptist Church under a magnifying glass, and urging members of the congregation to get tested meant that more COVID-19 cases would likely be discovered and associated with the church. So far, there have been more than two dozen cases. It's the second-largest church outbreak in Maine. Houses of worship account for just a fraction of the state's COVID-19 cases, but Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah says they are of special concern.

NIRAV SHAH: Some of the things that can generate COVID-19 are literally the reasons you go to church for - fellowship, close camaraderie, singing.

WIGHT: When outbreaks do erupt in houses of worship, Shah says it requires a more deft response compared to other settings.

SHAH: I think it's safe to say that for the past, you know, 2- to 3,000 years, those who attend different houses of worship have felt besieged, no matter what your faith.

WIGHT: Building trust, Shah says, is the biggest challenge. Pastor Matt Burden says his church decided to be transparent for the health of the community, but he understands why some churches are more reluctant.

BURDEN: A sense that communities are singling them out for blame in a way that other institutions aren't. So I'm very sympathetic to the way that a lot of other churches are trying to wrestle with this. And it's not an easy thing.

WIGHT: Burden gives frequent updates on his congregation's COVID-19 situation in Facebook posts, and he says his transparency has yielded some positive attention. Several pastors have called to offer support. Others have also asked how they can avoid an outbreak.

BURDEN: It's an interesting call to take from someone who wants to know how not to end up like you. But I understand where they're coming from, right?

WIGHT: Because, he says, no congregation wants to end up in the headlines for a COVID-19 outbreak.

For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight in Lewiston, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Patty Wight