Calais Church Takes Radical Approach After COVID-19 Outbreak: Full Transparency

Nov 16, 2020

The Maine CDC on Monday announced an outbreak of COVID-19 at another church — the Tabernacle of the Congregation in Sweden — the most recent in a handful of investigations involving houses of worship. Churches at the center of outbreaks tend to shy away from the public scrutiny they face in these instances. Some are defiant, but at least one Maine church has decided to take very open approach to the outbreak in its midst.

When the state CDC announced an outbreak at the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford this summer, Pastor Todd Bell, took to the pulpit the next day for in-person service, where he railed against the state for intervening in the church’s affairs.

“You’re looking at a liberty lover. I love liberty. And I want the people of God to enjoy liberty,” he said.

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 and national media attention. The outbreak is now closed, but six other churches currently have outbreaks.

“It’s been kind of a crazy week,” says Pastor Matt Burden of the Second Baptist Church in Calais, speaking in a Facebook video posted from his home in October. “Some of you may have heard what’s going on, why this is a crazy week — we’ve had a few cases of confirmed positive coronavirus pop up among some of our church people.”

The Second Baptist Church had already suspended in-person services the week before, when someone indirectly associated with the church tested positive. Now, there were cases among Burden’s congregation.

“We certainly would want to recommend anyone from our church family who is experiencing any kind of symptoms, or anything like that, please isolate, get yourself tested,” he says.

This may seem like the natural thing to do, to openly disclose cases in a community setting such as a church and ask people to take precautions. But Burden says the temptation to keep the situation under wraps is strong.

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

Opening up about the outbreak put the 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. In all, the Maine CDC has linked 27 cases to the Second Baptist Church. It’s the second largest church outbreak in the state. Burden says the situation has been especially disheartening because he had implemented safety precautions.

“And to be honest, it was really hard. We were in an area that was not hard hit by the coronavirus for most of the summer, the early fall. And we were among the most cautious institutions in town. Even amongst my own congregation, you know, people have been very supportive, they’re willing to play by the rules. But there is a feeling amongst some people that, ‘Why are we doing all this stuff?’” he says.

The church offered two services to limit crowd size. They roped off pews for distancing. Burden says he recommended — though didn’t require — his congregation to wear masks during services. People wore masks while coming and going, which, until recently, did align with state reopening guidelines. Of the 200-plus outbreaks of COVID-19 that Maine has seen so far, churches account for just a fraction. But CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah says epidemiologically, they are of special concern.

“Some of the things that can generate COVID-19 are literally the reasons you go to church for. Fellowship, close camaraderie, singing,” he says.

When outbreaks do erupt in a house of worship, Shah says it requires a more deft response from the state, compared to outbreaks that originate in other settings.

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

So when the CDC investigates an outbreak, he says, building trust is the biggest challenge.

“I don’t at all fault people for being hesitant or reticent about sharing. It’s my job to build that trust, to convince them that sharing who they were at service with will be used for good,” Shah says.

Burden says his church decided to be transparent for the good of the community. But he understands why other churches don’t open up.

“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,” he says.

Pointing fingers, Burden says, discourages others from disclosing positive cases. He gives frequent updates on the outbreak in Facebook posts, and says his transparency has yielded some positive attention. He says several pastors have called to offer support and some have asked how they can avoid an outbreak.

“Which is, 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? Nobody wants to end up as the headline of an outbreak,” he says.

Burden says he encourages them to follow updated safety guidelines and wear masks. And if the worst does happen, he says, get the word out quickly and trust God to handle the rest.