A North Carolina church gathered congregants for a musical Christmas celebration earlier this month, and within a matter of days, at least 75 COVID-19 infections had been traced back to the event.
The Henderson County Health Department has linked a growing number of cases of the respiratory infection to one caroling event held at First Baptist Church of Hendersonville. The agency identified a holiday celebration held Dec. 5 at First Baptist as a superspreader event in a press release: “To date, the Health Department has identified 75 individuals who have tested positive as a result of the event.”
It was not immediately clear how many of those who tested positive were actually in attendance at the event.
The church’s white classical facade and white steeple lean over the street, the tallest building in sight in the town of 14,000. Inside, vaulting ceilings echo with song. Too many songs, according to the public health department.
The impact of the event was immediately visible on the church’s Facebook page, where upbeat posts about the holidays and upcoming events quickly gave way to last-minute event cancellations and “special announcements” from the pastors about new COVID-19 cases among congregants. Senior Pastor Steve Scoggins, the grandfatherly head of the church, promised in a sermon to post video of the holiday musical celebration on the church’s Facebook page, but no such video was found on there following news of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The holiday musical wasn’t the only church event that eschewed social distancing. First Baptist has held in-person services and events throughout the pandemic, even inviting other churches’ congregations to its services and vice versa, according to its Facebook posts. Scoggins delivered the keynote address at North Carolina Baptist Convention on Nov. 10, which drew 500 attendees, per the convention’s own website.
The Asheville Citizen Times reports that several people who attended the Christmas event said many attendees were not donning masks, and members of the choir stood shoulder to shoulder as they belted out songs without face coverings.
Scoggins identified First Baptist worship pastor Chason Farris as the leader of the musical. Neither Scoggins nor Farris responded to a request for comment.
In video of another event apparently held around the same time as the Dec. 5 caroling session and posted to Facebook a day after, more than 50 people were seen sitting shoulder to shoulder in the church orchestra and choir performing an arrangement of “In Dulci Jubilo.” Some wore masks, but most did not, as they were singing or playing instruments.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has pleaded with churches to hold online services amid the pandemic, warning that singing in groups is an activity that poses a high risk of coronavirus transmission.
Scoggins said that church staff had taken the temperature of all the performers and congregants upon entry. But in a Facebook post four days after the event, the church asked congregants to simply “consider staying home” if they were experiencing cold symptoms or a cough.
By that time, the number of COVID-19 cases among congregants had already “shot up,” according to Scoggins’ note to church-goers.
And in the immediate aftermath of the apparent superspreader event, it seems the church billed staying home as optional. A joke Scoggins made during his Dec. 6 sermon seemed to indicate the coronavirus had already begun to spread among the congregation.
“You know what I appreciate? So many people not coming to church when they’re sick,” Scoggins said in a Dec. 6 sermon. “I really appreciate that. God bless you. We’ve had enough sharing of that kind of stuff.” His sermon also featured a clip from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Hendersonville, like the rest of the nation, is undergoing a surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Henderson County has recorded 91 COVID-19 deaths and 4,188 cases. That’s 767 cases per 100,00 people, the highest level since the pandemic began, according to North Carolina’s COVID dashboard.
“Henderson County continues to see an increase in COVID-19 cases generated from social gatherings such as parties, family and neighborhood get-togethers,” the health department wrote in its press release regarding First Baptist.
Since the superspreader event, the church has instituted changes to protect congregants against the coronavirus. Leaders have implemented “drive-through communion” for Christmas Eve and a month-long moratorium on in-person worship, per a statement on its website. For those who have already contracted the coronavirus, however, the protective measures come too late.
“The current wave of virus infection is so widespread that we must take action out of concern for the safety of our church, our community, and especially those who are most vulnerable in our midst,” Scoggins wrote, along with chairman of deacons Robert Bridges, in a letter posted to the church’s website.
North Carolina’s governor has issued a statewide mask mandate for most indoor settings, capped gatherings at 10 people, and established a nightly curfew, but worship services are exempted from the order as exercises of the First Amendment. A dozen people have died and more than 200 were infected as the result of an outbreak linked to a Charlotte church’s October events. Henderson County is under the state’s modified stay-at-home order until Jan. 8. The county’s sheriff said he and his deputies wouldn’t enforce a mask mandate in June.
In late October, Henderson County Health Director Steve Smith warned, “Cases are continuing to climb because we’re simply dropping our guard.”