Virus-Plagued Megachurch Bedevils Town—and Locals Are Mad as Hell
Coronavirus was under control in Redding, California. Then a rogue religious fanatic came to town.
Erik Withers is furious.
The 29-year-old from Redding, California, works at a private security company, and was desperate to return to work when novel coronavirus restrictions recently began easing in the state—and the pandemic appeared to turn a corner.
But over the past few weeks, as local COVID-19 cases have crept up, launching the county from higher tier to higher tier in the state’s color-coded guide to the pandemic, that dream has been dashed.
Withers blames a local church—and a controversial affiliated preacher who has made national headlines—for the backslide. “We are now just days away from going into a lockdown, all thanks to Bethel, Sean Feucht, and their careless activities,” Withers told The Daily Beast.
Even after the activist and worship leader left town, drawing ire and causing mayhem elsewhere, Redding’s situation shows that any community can risk being plunged back into lockdown abyss by even a single rogue institution.
Redding’s Shasta County—pop. 177,223—has a cumulative total of 1,515 confirmed cases and 24 deaths for the entire length of the pandemic. Those numbers may sound low to Americans living in harder-hit areas, but “our biggest spike is happening right now,” Kerri Schuette, Shasta County’s Health and Human Services Agency spokeswoman, told The Daily Beast.
Daily case counts are now far into the double digits, whereas Schuette said weeks ago the county was only tallying about five per day and considered in the orange—or moderate—tier. As of Wednesday, the county was literally in the red.
It takes two weeks before the state officially designates a county as having entered a new tier—and enforces harsher restrictions on them, according to Schuette. But the county is expected to get “official word” on Oct. 20 that it has been designated purple, and then will have three days to comply with new restrictions, which “means that our restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, museums, and personal care services all have to go to outdoor-only,” said Schuette. “This is a big impact when two weeks ago we were allowed to be at 50 percent at indoor restaurants.”
For better or worse, the primary source of the spike is not a mystery.
At last count on Tuesday, there were 274 cases of COVID-19 “who are students or staff” at Redding’s Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry since Aug. 13, according to Schuette. “The majority have occurred in the past two weeks,” she told The Daily Beast.
That was a significantly higher tally than the 137 COVID-19 cases at the school that county and Bethel school officials confirmed the same time last week, according to the Redding Record Searchlight. Bethel is both a school and a megachurch with about 11,000 members, representing approximately 10 percent of the city’s population, per the newspaper.
Schuette said county epidemiologists believe the school has “definitely driven the spike,” adding: “We’re one of the few counties going in the wrong direction, unfortunately.”
Aside from the students, staff, and church members who’ve contracted the virus, Schuette said the county has determined that many other cases have been in people who came into contact with Bethel-affiliated residents.
The sheer volume has made that task difficult.
“Our epidemiologists are working to sort all that out right now. It’s really complicated. We really have a lot of cases,” said Schuette.
The church made national headlines in late July when Feucht held a large rally at the city’s Sundial Bridge with thousands of maskless participants in defiance of local health orders. He has since held events in Maine, Tennessee, Georgia, and Oregon where hundreds and thousands of people have shown up—sometimes even indoors—in violation of local mandates. Feucht has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast in recent weeks, including on Wednesday.
Schuette clarified that the county did not connect any subsequent cases directly to that July gathering—and that Bethel had claimed not to be affiliated with it, suggesting Feucht had gone rogue. But residents say the spectacular violation of COVID-19 protocols set them on course for disaster.
“They almost seemed proud of it, as if they were part of some sort of revolt against the state’s mask mandate,” Withers said of the Feucht event. “After that there was a noticeable drop in the number of people wearing masks in public, and some businesses even made a point of rejecting the mask mandate all together in defiance of the state’s orders.”
For its part, the school accepted fewer students for the 2020-2021 academic school year because of the pandemic, then switched to online instruction when case counts began rising, Bethel spokesman Aaron Tesauro told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. The church also held its services outdoors beginning Sept. 27 before canceling in-person services when cases worsened.
Tesauro said Wednesday that both the church and the school “have taken proactive measures” since March, including “cancelled ministry activities, COVID-19 tests for students prior to starting school, and enforcing social distancing and face covering requirements.”
In a Facebook post on Oct. 9, the church wrote that it was “sincerely saddened” by the rise of positive COVID-19 cases in Shasta County, some of which “are those within the Bethel community.”
But even as the school went online and the church cancelled its ballfield outdoor services, Bethel’s church hosted a conference that gathered 325 people over two days on Sept. 30 called Open Heavens, the Record Searchlight first reported. According to the county public health department, the event would have violated restrictions at the time, which prohibited indoor gatherings at worship facilities above 200 people.
Tesauro said that Open Heavens attendance was reduced by more than 80 percent and that mask-clad worshippers were socially distanced in three separated, smaller groups—and that students were at an offsite location. The spokesman told the Record Searchlight that he was not aware of anyone contracting the virus after attending the conference.
But that hasn’t curbed concerns from local residents and city leaders. In response to the Oct. 9 Facebook post, residents wrote that the church should have notified people before the local news did. “Just be truthful and apologetic,” wrote one. “The Bethel community chose to gather despite restrictions, and now you have a COVID cluster,” said another. A third resident wrote, “Get in line with science, and do what you need to do. You have caused so much trouble. Follow the rules and we will get back to normal!!!”
Schuette confirmed to The Daily Beast that the county health department was aware of local discontent over the church’s cluster.
“It’s extremely frustrating to hear Bethel’s PR representative say that they are following social distancing guidelines and wearing masks only to see their members gather in large groups without masks,” said Withers. “To see their members at the grocery stores in large groups without masks, while the rest of us are just trying to get through this.”
The worst part is that there’s no clear body responsible for reining in potential bad actors.
The county health department says its hands are tied on enforcement—and they don’t even know who would be responsible for carrying it out. “We do not have enforcement authority,” said Schuette. “We’re a health department; what we can do is continue to educate. That’s our role—and tell people to test and isolate and quarantine—all the 5,000 things that a health department does during a pandemic.”
Neither the Redding Police Department nor the state’s health department immediately responded to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
Withers, calling Feucht an “idiot,” said the church must face consequences for its effect on the larger community.
“I just hope that when we inevitably have to shut down for a second time, everybody remembers that Bethel Church and Sean Feucht are directly responsible.”