At San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church on Sunday morning, hundreds of maskless congregants sang and prayed, swaying together in the pews, babies and grandparents in close proximity.
It might have been easy to forget there was a deadly pandemic blazing through the country.
That is, until about 25 minutes into the sermon, when pastor Matt Hagee, on a stage bathed in blue light, announced that his father, the 80-year-old senior pastor and the church’s founder, John Hagee, had been diagnosed two days earlier with COVID-19. Hagee said during the Oct. 4 livestreamed service that his father “has been diligent throughout this entire COVID pandemic to monitor his health.”
“It was one, discovered very early, and two, his medical team has him under watchful care, and three, he's feeling well enough to be frustrated by anyone in a white coat with a stethoscope,” said Hagee. “He covets your prayers and asks for you to pray for him daily.”
“As it is a reality in our lives, we also have a promise that we serve a God who is a healer,” Hagee added, addressing the massive crowd.
Hagee’s diagnosis made waves locally, with many San Antonio residents commenting on social media that they were—at the very least—unsurprised by the news, considering how few masks have been seen at the church. It was not clear on Monday when the senior pastor was last spotted at the church himself, though he has given sermons in recent weeks, including one on Sept. 13 in which he urged congregants to vote with the Bible in mind.
But Hagee is perhaps best known outside of Evangelical circles for his long history of outlandish statements, and, more recently, coronavirus shutdown skepticism.
The current restrictions for San Antonio’s Bexar County require anyone over the age of 10 to wear a mask inside any commercial entity or business “wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing.” Even outdoor gatherings above 10 people are prohibited.
Both rules exclude churches, thanks to an order from Gov. Greg Abbott, who has repeatedly come under fire for being slow to embrace coronavirus restrictions. In some cases, Abbott has been accused of actively working against local politicians to prevent what several cities have said are necessary safeguards.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told The Daily Beast on Monday that he felt the exception for houses of worship in Texas was “a big mistake” and “just not smart,” especially when facilities like Cornerstone Church are gathering hundreds of people without masks in close proximity.
“We have several large churches here in town, but I think most of the pastors are being very careful,” said Wolff, calling it “unfortunate” that Cornerstone’s services appear to show very few people following recommended protocols. Requests for comment from The Daily Beast were not returned by Cornerstone Church officials on Monday.
The megachurch has more than 22,000 members, according to The San Antonio Express-News. Hagee, who took a meeting with Vice President Pence at the White House in 2017 and reportedly met with the president while he was visiting the Oval Office, notoriously called marriage equality “two disturbed people playing house” and referred to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as “the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans” because the city’s “level of sin” was “offensive to God.”
Hagee has also called the Roman Catholic Church a “false cult system.”
In July, Hagee and his ministry—along with four parents of Cornerstone Christian Schools—actually sued San Antonio and Bexar County officials, including Wolff, in an attempt to force schools to begin in-person instruction before Labor Day.
According to the Express-News, the suit argued that the order to postpone in-person classes “unconstitutionally infringes on the religious freedoms of private religious schools.” The issue was resolved when Gov. Greg Abbott announced that local health agencies lacked the authority to close classrooms.
Wolff said that, after a lengthy back and forth with Abbott over local mandates, public health authorities and judges’ hands were tied when it came to churches.
“We encourage them and give them health advisories, but of course they don’t have to follow it,” he told The Daily Beast. “Churches are off limits.”
As superspreading events at churches in Arkansas, Illinois, and Maine have shown in recent months, churches are not somehow immune to spreading the virus to hundreds—and even killing people who didn’t attend services.
“I can't think of a higher risk setting than being indoors, crowded together, and without masks,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “The fact that people are singing and shouting amplifies the risk more. This is a superspreader event waiting to happen. In fact, it is almost certain to rapidly spread the virus to the congregants, their families, and the wider community.”
Any other organization or business that violates rules in the area might be subject to monetary fines and other citations. But local authorities have no ability to enforce mask-wearing, distancing, or capacities at churches.
“We’re doing tracking and contact tracing, but it’s awful hard to know where someone got it,” Judge Wolff added. “Our numbers look good now, but we’ve been here before. When you hear about the president getting it and Hagee getting it, I’m not sure.”
What does it mean for public health when a congregation of hundreds, even thousands, is following faith leaders who refuse to wear a mask and then get sick? According to Gostin, “It is a full-on disaster.”
As of Monday afternoon, Bexar County—population 1,925,865—had 494 new coronavirus cases overnight and a cumulative total of 58,678 cases. There had been 1,332 COVID-19 deaths in the county since the beginning of the year, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. At the county’s peak, there were 1,267 people hospitalized with the virus in July, which severely strained the city’s capacity.
On Monday, that number was much lower, at 200, according to Judge Wolff.
But John Hernandez, a 31-year-old San Antonio-based sales and service manager, said that even as the numbers look better than they did several months ago—and it wasn’t clear when the elder Hagee was last in the Cornerstone Church crowd—his infection was concerning.
“I fear we will be going back to our apex of thousands of new cases a day, especially with some of the megachurches we have here,” he told The Daily Beast. “No mask, just a ‘God will protect me’ attitude.”
“Too many people are letting their guard down,” Hernandez added, explaining that his aunt and uncle died days apart from COVID-19. “I don’t wish this virus on anyone.”
“I’m all for freedom of religion,” Hernandez continued. “It’s one of the cornerstones of this country. But to put people’s lives in danger because you want to hold a service … is not God-like and is not Christ-like.”
Ultimately, Wolff said, even if hundreds of cases resulted from such gatherings, whether at this house of worship or another, “There’s nothing we can do about the church.”