An annual, multi-day gathering at a massive Charlotte, North Carolina-based church has emerged as a likely superspreader event, feeding the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the county and apparently infecting at least 82 people, three of whom have died, according to local officials.
The clash between in-person worship and pandemic guidelines has sparked outrage, tension, and superspreader events in recent weeks all over the country—from California to Maine. Adding insult to injury at the outbreak in Charlotte, officials and health providers said that the church refused to let anyone set up on-site testing.
“We’ve offered our services and offered our services with no response,” Sylvia Grier, a management services officer at the nonprofit Genesis Project, a local mental and behavioral health agency that offers free coronavirus testing to residents, told The Daily Beast.
United House of Prayer for All People is a palatial, jewel-toned structure guarded by statues of lions on either side of the entryway, where blue and red crosses hang high. The church was founded a century ago and is known to this day for its “shout” bands and mass baptisms, as The Charlotte Observer reported.
The Mecklenburg County Public Health department said in a statement on Wednesday that a series of events at the church, from Oct. 4 through Oct. 11, were attended by visitors from Georgia, New Jersey, New York, and South Carolina. That decision has not aged well.
“You probably heard us say, two weeks ago, things were looking really good for us, but we told you it was fragile,” said Raynard Washington, Mecklenburg County's Deputy Health Director, at a Tuesday night county commissioners meeting, according to WCNC-TV. Washington said the county’s daily cases nearly doubled in just the past week. “We’ve seen this happening really quickly—really quickly,” he added.
County spokeswoman Rebecca Carter declined to answer specific questions from The Daily Beast on Thursday, pointing instead to a statement from the department. Carter previously said officials don’t know exactly how many people attended the services—both indoors and outdoors—and have been unable to confirm reports that smaller events included up to 50 people while other, larger events at the church reached up to 1,000 people throughout the week, as the Observer reported.
According to Charlotte Culture Guide, the church has a seating capacity of 2,500 worshipers in its main sanctuary, a smaller chapel with a capacity of 700, a fully equipped commercial kitchen and dining area that can accommodate up to 300 patrons, as well as an additional private dining area that seats 100 patrons.
Calls to the United House of Prayer for All People for comment were not returned on Thursday.
North Carolina is currently in Phase 3 of its reopening plan until at least Nov. 13, which recommends—but does not mandate—that in-person worship to be limited at either 100 people per room or 30 percent capacity, whichever is less. State guidelines also ask that facilities “ensure sufficient social distancing with at least 6-foot separation between groups other than those in their household.”
But this wasn’t just any church service.
“In that gathering people come from all over the country, maybe all over the world, to come to that festive affair,” county commissioner Vilma Leake said during a Wednesday press conference.
One woman, Catherine Williams, told WBTV late Thursday that her mother-in-law died days after attending the services—though she was not able to get a COVID-19 test before passing away. She also told the local television station that her mother-in-law’s sister was hospitalized and has tested positive for the virus. Both women were at the events hosted at the United House of Prayer for All People, but Williams said she could not be certain that’s where they were infected.
“They had masks on but it was just the fact that people from different states came here,” Williams said. “My thing is that with COVID they should have just cancelled it.”
As of Thursday, Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County had 32,264 cumulative confirmed cases and 376 deaths, compared to a total of 250,592 confirmed cases in North Carolina, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Eight of the church-affiliated cases and at least one of the deaths were in residents of a retirement and long-term care facility in Charlotte, where now all residents have been tested, Washington said during Wednesday’s press conference. Authorities have so far attempted to contact at least 131 close contacts of the confirmed cases, in addition to the health departments in other states. Of all the confirmed cases, five patients have been hospitalized, Washington said.
Washington explained that the county, too, offered to provide testing at the church itself, but that leaders declined to host a testing site on their property.
“They have not been interested,” Washington said.
For its part, the Genesis Project was prepared to give out more than 300 tests on Sunday but has often seen only one or two dozen takers per day at its sites around the city, Grier said. “We have been doing testing all over this area, and we tried to get the word to the ministers, but of course they were very hard to reach, so we just contacted some members to let them know we would open up to do testing for them on Sunday.”
They never heard back, Grier said.
“We will be worried about cases every day,” she continued. “As we travel around the city, you can see that people still see it so lackadaisical and are not wearing their masks or doing their distancing.”
“Generally, [Charlotte residents are] not taking it seriously,” Grier told The Daily Beast. “That’s what we’re seeing overall.”
Despite the seeming lack of interest from the church, the health department will continue to provide free drive-thru tests this week near the church’s property in an attempt to curb the local outbreak and to more quickly identify subsequent infections, it said in a statement.
Washington told reporters that the department asked the church to stop holding events altogether, but that it has received no response from leaders about whether they will heed that request. Even so, Washington said he has been in daily contact with the church’s head pastor.
On Wednesday, the state health department released new data about North Carolina’s cases over the course of the pandemic, breaking down which facilities have been tied to the most infections. In recent weeks, according to the report, clusters from social gatherings, including “parties, family gatherings, weddings, funerals” have increased, as they have in other parts of the country.
But the data also showed that the number of cases associated with clusters in religious gatherings increased in September, while cases associated with college and university settings peaked in late August. The earlier facilities that produced clusters, like meat and poultry processing plants, have decreased their case counts steadily since early May.
The report found that there had been 168 clusters at colleges and universities in North Carolina, resulting in a total of 1,902 infections and zero deaths. Religious gatherings, meanwhile, resulted in 76 clusters, 1,040 cases, and 13 deaths in the state.
But, health experts said, pandemic fatigue—or zest for individual liberty—is no excuse for contributing to a fresh coronavirus wave nationwide.
“Trying to prevent the deaths of our community members should not be a political issue,” said Viviana Martínez-Bianchi, an associate professor at Duke University’s department of Family Medicine and Community Health. “We’re all tired. The community is tired, health-care workers are tired, we’re all tired of wearing a mask. But I’m not ready to say, ‘Let’s give up on this and allow more people to die.’”