Did This Maine Town Get ‘Hoodwinked’ Into the Next Superspreader Fiasco?
A devastated pastor in the state that already had a notorious wedding go wrong says things just got out of control last week. Local officials aren’t so sure.
An unassuming red brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street could turn Oakland, Maine—pop. 6,240—into a new hotspot for the novel coronavirus after hundreds of worshippers flooded the Kingdom Life Church there last weekend.
The church’s senior pastor maintains the massive crowds were an innocent mistake. But one town leader worried about a fresh in-state superspreader disaster went so far as to suggest to The Daily Beast that officials were bamboozled after back-to-back worship events on Friday and Saturday.
“They had a solid plan,” Town Manager Gary Bowman said in an interview. “But none of it took place. After it all happened, we knew—well, we assumed, we don’t have any proof—we’d been hoodwinked.”
Oakland’s deputy police chief, Rick Stubbert, previously said law enforcement officials in the town were deciding if they would “take action” over the events, as local news outlets reported. Neither Stubbert nor the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention returned requests for comment from The Daily Beast on Thursday seeking clarification about what “take action” might mean.
Rev. Jamie Dickson told The Daily Beast on Thursday, on the verge of tears, that his team had only the best intentions of providing solace and comfort during a time of debilitating uncertainty. And while Dickson assured both Stubbert and Bowman that church leaders would follow local guidelines, he freely admitted to The Daily Beast on Thursday that that’s not exactly what happened.
The church was initially set to host a four-day annual conference called Tenacious Love, but it was scrapped in favor of the purportedly smaller events over two nights, the church wrote in a Facebook post. Bowman, the town manager, told The Daily Beast on Thursday that he met with Dickson and urged him to cancel the conference because he was concerned about “the wrath of public opinion” if someone got sick.
Of course, Bowman had excellent reason to be worried. In August, a notorious wedding reception in Maine became a superspreader event, leading to 170 infections and killing eight people who did not even attend the party, while spreading the virus throughout the state.
So, Dickson explained in a statement earlier this week, out-of-state attendees were encouraged to stay home and watch on a broadcast, while the local community was invited to take part in person. “We withheld promotion online to avoid a large crowd,” he said. “We set up multiple locations in the building that people could engage and social distance.” The church also posted guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention around the building, encouraged mask-wearing, and provided hand sanitizer, Dickson claimed.
Things got out of control when hundreds of worshippers arrived, some from out of state, filling the parking lot for several hours. Eventually, people both in and outside of the building alerted the authorities, according to local news reports.
Many of those inside did not wear masks, according to Bowman, the town manager. The state limits indoor gatherings to 50 people.
The service featured controversial 37-year-old Californian Sean Feucht, a “missionary, artist, speaker, author, activist, and the founder of multiple worldwide movements,” according to his website. Feucht has been traveling the country in protest of government restrictions on religious gatherings during the pandemic, as The Sentinel reported.
In addition to speaking at the night-time services, Feucht spoke at the church on Sunday morning, claiming he has been to all the national COVID-19 “hotspots” and has never been infected, according to the paper.
When he spoke at the church, Feucht said he had been with 100,000 worshippers in Washington, D.C., earlier that day and had traveled to 33 cities across the United States recently, including at the Capitol building in Sacramento, California.
“Every place we go, God shows up,” he said, adding that “Heaven is responding,” and that he “can’t wait to see the ripple effects from this weekend in Maine.”
“I can’t wait to see the local news try to twist and thwart and change and shift a narrative that God is writing that’s unstoppable,” Feucht said. “I can’t wait to see a church that’s not going to back down.”
Feucht did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast on Thursday.
Locals also raised eyebrows at one of the church’s Facebook posts, which asked community members to “avoid posting” the livestream online “as you want to be very sensitive to COVID policies and general community concern for larger gatherings.”
When asked directly whether he meant to “hoodwink” the town, Dickson sighed heavily.
“There was no intention—we were in a situation where we had to figure out what to do,” he told The Daily Beast. “We were offering masks. Our county is not a mask-mandatory county. We were offering them to everybody. Quite a few people were wearing masks, though there were many who chose not to. We asked every single person to comply with CDC guidelines. Our mistake was that we didn’t have a system of enforcement in place. We even made custom social-distancing stickers.”
“We can’t have this situation happen again,” Dickson admitted. “We obviously feel devastated. We have to go back to the drawing board. We’re going to take this week off of church and ask people to monitor their health. The following week we’re going to implement a registration service.”
“We didn’t want to do something really polarizing or make a stand,” said Dickson. “We were trying to avoid that at all costs.”
But Bowman worries it’s too late.
“We’re just waiting to see if it turns into a nightmare,” said Bowman. “This has got the potential of being a superspreader event. I hope they didn’t give them all friggin COVID. It’s unbelievable.”
At least one expert agreed.
“This type of event is sort of the crux of what is turning out to be the key epidemiological phenomenon of COVID-19,” said Boston Children’s Hospital’s Chief Innovation Officer John Brownstein, who is also a researcher at Harvard Medical School. “A large portion of cases are coming from superspreader events.”
“Things can quickly go from 0 to 60 in a community,” said Brownstein. “That’s exactly what we see over and over again, and it’s why these large, indoor mass gatherings are the recipe for a major transmission event.”
“This is the kind of high-risk event that can turn a community into an epicenter,” said Brownstein.
For his part, Bowman cited the more than 200,000 Americans who’ve died so far from the virus.
“Just to think there’s a possibility we could be contributing to those numbers is sickening to me,” he said.
Ultimately, there haven’t been any new reports of the virus in town so far, Bowman said, adding: “We won’t really know anything for another week.”
Meanwhile, many in the community chimed in on the church’s Facebook page to offer support.
“When someone knows one’s heart, truth stands without needing to be defended,” wrote a congregant named Gerri Plourde. “It’s Jesus on the line and He does not need to be explained... please know the battle in the heavenlies rages, and I, for one, cover all of KLC with prayer.”
When asked for further comment via email, Plourde added, “I'm not interested. Endangering his people would never be this pastor’s intent!”
And, on Thursday, Dickson still defended holding in-person services.
“We’ve been operating for months with smaller services here in a small town,” he said, adding: “We feel really far removed from it. So we didn’t feel the need to be all-virtual. It didn’t feel close to home here.”