Many schools are reopening next week — including a private academy in Sanford run by a church that has an outbreak of COVID-19.
The leader of that church also presided over a wedding in Millinocket that is now linked to a 144-case outbreak of the disease. In recent church services, Pastor Todd Bell has railed against safety precautions, raising concerns among some in Sanford that the school will flout guidelines and put the community at risk for further spread of the virus.
Last Sunday's services at the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford began with hymns. In a video that was posted online from the evening service, nearly two dozen choir members file onto a stage, unmasked, where they stand shoulder to shoulder and sing.
"That's some good congregational singing. I'm encouraged by that. The choir, we're a little off in numbers, but it's just a wonderful sound," Bell said.
After his praise, Pastor Todd Bell then turned his attention to the criticism he faced for holding in-person services the day after the Maine Center for Disease Control announced it was investigating an outbreak of five cases at his church. That number has since doubled.
"We go on! We go on, with courage and boldness! With the help of the Lord! What's not being reported is that those that were COVID positive have finished quarantine and are in church tonight! Isn't that the way it's supposed to be? In church tonight!"
Bell has also come under scrutiny for officiating a wedding in Millinocket that sparked the state's largest outbreak of COVID-19 to date. The event is now linked to 144 cases, two deaths, an outbreak at a nursing home in Madison and another at the York County Jail.
The Maine CDC is still investigating whether the cases at the Calvary Baptist Church are linked to the wedding, but Bell acknowledged in his Sunday morning service that six families went to the ceremony. He lamented to his congregation that the word 'investigate" is being associated with the church, and criticized the state for telling people what to do. Government is not the answer, Bell said. God is the answer.
"As I said on a Zoom call Friday with all of the CDC heads and Dr. Shah, ‘You're looking at a liberty lover!’ I — love — liberty. And I want the people of God to enjoy liberty!”
If people want to wear a mask, he told the congregation, wear a mask. But he told them that using one was like trying to keep out a mosquito with a chain link fence.
Bell also complained that a socialist platform is dictating when kids can go to school. The church's school, Sanford Christian Academy, starts September 8. The more than 70 students enrolled, Bell said, will attend five days a week. And all sports are a-go.
"We're just gonna go on with things. We're not going to be ruled by fear. We're going to be governed by faith. Can somebody give me an amen?"
The pastor's comments are raising concerns in a community already reeling from an uptick in cases, said Sanford City Councilor Maura Herlihy.
"The school is located in a very dense part of our community,” Herlihy said. “The students come from different towns, they don't just come from Sanford. And that with school starting, and the fact that the pastor doesn't seem to want to work with the state of Maine and the CDC to keep things safe, what's the potential impact of an outbreak at the school should it occur?"
Herlihy said that the Sanford police had to contact the church earlier this spring for conducting services in violation of CDC guidelines. If the school flouts safety protocols, she is not sure to what extent the city can intervene.
"In all honesty, if the Sanford Christian Academy and Calvary Baptist are not working with the CDC, they're not going to work with the city of Sanford."
At a news briefing Thursday, CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said his agency has been communicating with Pastor Bell about its expectations for compliance with safety protocols.
"But we need to make sure it's more than just communication we're having,” said Shah. “We need to make sure the communication is coupled with responsive action."
Shah stressed that his agency's goal is to work with organizations. But if safety protocols are not followed, he said, the Department of Health and Human Services or the Attorney General's office can intervene for violating the state's executive order.
As doubts have been raised in the community about Sanford Christian Academy's commitment to preventing COVID-19, another private religious school less than half a mile away has embraced precautions.
"St. Thomas School is a parish school that serves a cluster of Catholic churches," said Martin McKeon, the interim-principal at St. Thomas School.
McKeon said St. Thomas is requiring all students to wear masks. It has capped enrollment to allow for physical distancing, it has at least doubled its cleaning expenses and it is using a cohort system for students. He said the school is following CDC guidelines to a T.
"The CDC guidelines are what is in the best interest of children and families anyway, and that is what we would want to be doing."
When asked for his response to Pastor Todd Bell's defiant stance against CDC recommendations, McKeon would only say: "I'm not going to comment on them. I pray for them."
Sanford Christian Academy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.