Maine’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak is linked to a wedding officiated by the pastor of a distancing-defying church who says masks are part of a “socialistic platform.” Now more than 144 COVID-19 patients have been linked to the event, and three people are dead.
Todd Bell is pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Maine. Famous for flying between ministries in multiple states on his private plane (God “burdened” his heart to do airplane ministry, he says), Bell flew in to officiate a rural Maine wedding on August 7.
That wedding is the nexus of 144 COVID-19 cases, including three that resulted in deaths, Maine officials said Friday. One of the deceased, an 83-year-old woman, did not even attend the wedding, but contracted the virus from a guest. None of this appears to be stopping Bell from doing business as usual in his church, calling on worshippers to trust “God, not government” as the pandemic progresses.
The August 7 wedding was a super-spreader event, hosted at the Tri Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket, Maine. Sixty-five guests attended a post-wedding reception dinner at the Big Moose Inn, a violation of the state’s limit on large gatherings. The wedding, officiated by Bell, went on to sicken guests, some of whom in turn passed it on to people in particularly vulnerable communities.
COVID-19 outbreaks at a local rehabilitation center, a senior living facility, a county jail, and a school have all been traced back to the wedding. The number of cases linked to the event has doubled in the past week.
One of the victims, 83-year-old Theresa Dentremont, did not attend the wedding, but caught COVID-19 from someone who had. A mother of six, Dentremont was described in an obituary as the “anchor of her family” and someone who was “unwaveringly positive and...always found the good in every person and every situation.”
Six Calvary Baptist families also attended the wedding, Bell confirmed in a sermon last Sunday, reported by the Penobscot Bay Pilot. But despite a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Calvary Baptist-goers should voluntarily quarantine, the church was still in full unmasked operation last week.
In his sermon, Bell told worshippers to stay home if they were sick, but launched into a conspiratorial sermon denouncing vaccines and repudiating anti-coronavirus measures. He also spent part of the sermon lashing out at people who had criticized him on social media, including a person who, after observing one of his posts about flying his private plane, speculated that Bell was going to spread the disease at a casino elsewhere in Maine.
Bell quipped that a casino would be a good place to deliberately spread COVID-19. “Gambling has killed more people and ruined more homes and destroyed more things in our society almost than liquor or pot or pornography,” Bell said, according to the Boston Globe. “Gambling is wicked.”
Although in his sermon Bell said he hoped the media was listening, the church has since removed all its live streamed sermons from YouTube and pulled its website. The church’s phone number, when called, returns a message saying the number is not currently accepting calls. On Twitter, the church retweeted a person who claimed Bell was unfairly under attack.
“Please pray for Pastor Todd Bell, his family and his church. The media and many others have been relentlessly attacking him for having church amidst the rise of COVID cases in Maine,” the tweet reads. “Pastors are being made out to be enemies of the people by media. We must stand together.”
That claim—that pastors are being portrayed as enemies—might be harsh toward the rest of the state’s religious leaders, most of whom have reportedly not had COVID-19 outbreaks in their congregations. Maine’s WGME reported that the overwhelming majority of Maine religious congregations have taken steps to prevent the disease’s spread, with some of them moving outdoors, implementing distancing for indoor services, or offering online sermons.
Some groups affiliated with Calvary Baptist have distanced themselves from the church. A nonprofit shelter that used the church to distribute food to low-income locals relocated to an outdoor site this week. Beneficiaries of the food program are especially susceptible to COVID-19, the program’s director told WGME, noting that 85 percent of the shelter’s clients had health complications that could exacerbate COVID-19’s worst effects.
Another local told WGME that Calvary Baptist missionaries had actively proselytized after the wedding, even trying to enter her home without masks.
“They came in without masks and asked to come in even further,” the woman told the news station. “They asked twice if I was sure they couldn’t come into my living room. When I refused they forced a pamphlet at me.”