Virginia Church Celebrates Superspreader Service as ‘Best Revival Ever’
Dozens of people were sickened by last month’s three-day service, but there aren’t too many asking for forgiveness.
A picturesque white-steeple church surrounded by lush trees in Keysville, Virginia—pop. 832—held a worship event last month that local health officials have “unequivocally” deemed a superspreader of the novel coronavirus.
But don’t hold your breath for an apology.
Though the gathering at Emmanuel Bible Church sickened at least 42 parishioners and church staffers, and caused a surge that forced the local school district to delay its transition to in-person instruction, it seems there are few, if any, regrets.
“Even after speaking to many that have been sick, it has been said that it was one of the best revivals ever,” the church said in a statement on its Facebook page.
It’s a story that has played out all over the nation in recent months, as “pandemic fatigue” and a zeal for in-person worship has sparked outbreaks—and exasperated public health officials.
In Keysville, the trouble started the weekend of Sept. 20, when Emmanuel Bible Church held the three-day revival services, welcoming parishioners up its brick steps into a burgundy-carpeted sanctuary. In the Facebook post about the incident, the church confirmed that “many” who attended the services became sick with COVID-19, “including the pastor.”
The post listed the precautions taken in advance of the event, including the procurement of hand sanitizers and masks, though face coverings were not made mandatory at the event. (Neither local politicians nor local health officials could say exactly how many attended. Calls and emails to the church were not returned, and the post was deleted within hours of The Daily Beast’s inquiries.)
“No one was discouraged from wearing a mask and announcements were made prior to our services that everyone should do what makes them feel safe,” the church wrote, noting that sanctuary never exceeded the allowed 50 percent occupancy. But the post went on to claim that a “COVID epidemiologist” with the state health department told the church that “‘it’s not a matter of if we get it, but when,’ as no one can safeguard 100 percent against a virus.”
The pastor was informed he’d contracted the virus on Sept. 26, according to the post, and notified all attendees that they should quarantine. Things spiraled from there, according to Robert Nash, health director of the Piedmont Health District Administrative Office.
“We had two more the following day,” said Nash. “Then four more, then six or eight more, until eventually we identified between 42 participants at the event who tested positive. There were 11 subsequent cases, which were secondarily or third generation linked to the outbreak.”
As of Friday, Keysville’s Charlotte County had 193 total cumulative cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Virginia Department of Health coronavirus dashboard. Nash said there was no indication of COVID-19 deaths related to the church event.
The virus has killed more than 218,000 nationwide, but Nash said that locally the pandemic is still largely seen as an abstract concept rather than a life-or-death threat. “We didn’t see the body bags and the overflowing emergency rooms and ICUs,” he said.
Even after the church outbreak, one apparent parishioner wrote on the church’s Facebook post that “it was my decision to come and I would do it again. Yes I got COVID but I could get it anywhere like gro. Store or Wal-Mart. Is it bad yes but this to will pass. Jesus has his arms around us all. Many prayers for our church family myself and our pastor amen [sic].” (That resident received nine “likes” on her comment; she did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.)
Unsurprisingly, Nash called that outlook “socially irresponsible.”
“We are in a global pandemic—period,” he said. “The virus is out there. We know it’s out there. We know there are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers who can spread the virus without any symptoms whatsoever. In that environment, not adhering to the strongly recommended mitigation measures from CDC and the Virginia Department of Health, you’re taking an unnecessary and unrecommended risk.”
“You can be reckless with your own life, but with this particular infection, getting it and spreading it to someone who is extremely vulnerable will kill them,” he added. “We have a social obligation to care for ourselves and our families and others in our community who may be at particular risk because that’s all we’ve got. We don’t have a vaccine yet.”
The revival cluster had repercussions beyond the church; the spike in cases caused the local school board to unanimously approve a delay in in-person instruction for some students to Nov. 2, Charlotte County Public School Superintendent Robbie Mason said in a statement. The “very small” groups already attending in-person instruction “have acclimated to our health mitigation practices; however, after consulting with the health district, it is not recommended that we bring new groups of students back in person until our COVID-19 numbers improve,” Mason said. Mason did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
“People are tired of being cooped up, being fearful for their health and the health of their families and would love for nothing more than for things to get back to normal,” Daniel Witt, the Charlotte County Administrator, told The Daily Beast. “The most recent spike has provided a real-life example of the importance of following the CDC and VDH guidelines. It has opened the eyes of citizens that Charlotte County is not immune to spikes in the virus.”
But others felt the episode should have prompted some soul-searching by the church and its leaders.
“I don’t think it is a silly question to ask why the church would hold a revival service in the middle of a pandemic,” local newspaper editor Roger Watson wrote in The Charlotte Gazette. “I can’t understand how a church could hold an event that becomes a superspreader event and not apologize.”
“Where is the apology to the community? Where is the apology to the people who got sick.” Watson, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, wrote. “Where is the apologies [sic] to the first responders and front-line health care workers who now have to risk their health by taking care of those who became infected.”
In addition to an apology, Watson asked that the church “let others who think they can outsmart this virus know that revival services like these are still not a good idea.”
Many faith leaders in other parts of the country have completely condemned in-person services.
“Jesus said that he came to give life, so that people could have it abundantly; it's hard to have abundant life if you're dead from a virus that could have been avoided,” said Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews, the vicar at St. Hilda St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington.
Josephine Robertson, the vicar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Bellevue, Washington, told The Daily Beast that it officially canceled all in-person events through the start of 2021.
“This is a trying time, but our charge as Christians is to put the welfare of all before our own comfort, that is our most honest worship, that is the worship I believe God calls us to,” Robertson told The Daily Beast.
Or, as Nash said: “If we don’t care for each other, we’re going to die together.”