Almost 200 people were exposed to the novel coronavirus during a Mother’s Day church service held against government orders in Butte County, California. Local officials announced that someone who attended Palermo Bible Family Church on May 10 tested positive for COVID-19 the next day. Now the 180-plus attendees are being advised to self-quarantine—and are being presented as an example of what can happen if reopening is rushed.
Pastor Defends Decision to Gather
In a now-deleted Facebook post, Pastor Mike Jacobsen says he decided to have in-person worship on Mother’s Day after being “kept out of our church for seven weeks and away from our church family.” He says the person who later tested positive was asymptomatic that Sunday but woke up feeling ill the next day. That individual is now in isolation at home.
“I would never with knowledge put anyone in [harm’s] way,” Jacobsen writes. “I am fully aware that some people may not understand that it is essential for our church to be together in community.” The church’s services are online-only until further notice.
Health officials notified all the May 10 worshipers about their possible exposure and are working to provide testing for them. Under California’s stay-at-home orders, in-person religious services aren’t yet allowed. Earlier in May, a federal judge ruled that Gov. Gavin Newsom has the authority to prohibit church gatherings during the pandemic to safeguard public health.
Gatherings Can Cause ‘major setback’
Butte County health officials say the church’s decision to violate restrictions “comes at a cost of many hours and a financial burden to respond effectively to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19.” Initially, the church wasn’t named.
Public health director Danette York says, “At this time, organizations that hold in-person services or gatherings are putting the health and safety of their congregations, the general public, and our local ability to open up at great risk.” She adds, “Moving too quickly through the reopening process can cause a major setback and could require us to revert back to more restrictive measures.”
Butte county is one of 22 California counties that had been permitted to reopen more businesses, but gatherings of any size—including religious gatherings—remain off-limits. So far, the state has had about 78,800 coronavirus cases and 3,200 deaths. During “stage three,” the next phase of California’s reopening plan, some gatherings may be possible.
Lockdown orders continue to face legal challenges throughout America. In North Carolina Saturday, a judge ruled that indoor church services could temporarily resume without limits. The Rev. Ron Baity of Return America filed the lawsuit, saying it was wrong to let retailers but not churches reopen at 50 percent capacity. “There was one standard for the church and another standard for the funeral home, another standard for businesses and the malls, etc., and it wasn’t right,” says Baity, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.
Gov. Roy Cooper says he won’t appeal the ruling but wants churches to be cautious. “We don’t want indoor meetings to become hotspots for the virus,” a spokesperson says, “and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of COVID-19.”