Pastor of Maine Wedding Now Linked to 7 Coronavirus Deaths Still Does Not Require Masks in Church
The Aug. 7 wedding ceremony that violated Maine's public health guidelines has now been linked to 176 cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) as well as seven deaths of people who did not attend the nuptials, according to state health officials.
The Sanford pastor who presided over the wedding remains defiant and is not requiring his congregants to wear masks. Todd Bell, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church, recently told his congregation that “we’re not going to be ruled by fear,” according to an audio recording from one of his recent church services. “We’re going to be governed by faith. Can someone give me an amen?”
“I’m definitely concerned,” Sanford city council member Maura Herlihy tells PEOPLE. She believes Bell is sending the wrong message to his congregation. “I don’t see what the harm is in wearing a mask, especially when health officials say it helps stop the spread. For someone of faith … God has given us science and it is something we should use.”
The Sanford City Council last week passed a face mask ordinance requiring people to wear masks at all indoor businesses (and outside if they are not six-feet apart) or face a $100 fine. Places of worship do not fall under the “indoor business” umbrella, she says.
Herlihy says that all of the blame for the uptick in Sanford’s coronavirus cases should not fall solely on Bell, as other organizations – religious and otherwise – in the community are not adhering to state safety guidelines when it comes to the pandemic.
Bell’s lawyer, David Gibbs III, maintains that his client is being unfairly targeted.
“We certainly don’t want to blame the bride and groom, but this was a family wedding that was held with guests at a public facility, and [the coronavirus outbreak] ends up largely getting blamed on Pastor Bell and his church. That connection is maybe just a little bit exaggerated in the news.”
Gibbs, who works for the National Center for Life and Liberty, an organization that defends the religious rights of churches, says Bell and his family (he has a wife and two daughters) have received death threats.
Bell has deleted or blocked social media accounts. When reached by PEOPLE, Bell said in an email that he was not giving any interviews.
Gibbs says that Bell is encouraging other safety measures in his church, like social distancing and providing hand sanitizer, but is “honoring individual choice” by allowing his congregants to decide whether or not they want to wear masks.
Sanford Christian Academy, a private K-12 school affiliated with Calvary Baptist Church, opened last week. Teachers, staff, and the roughly 60 students who attend the school are not required to wear masks.
Bell has a pilot’s license and flies to various churches throughout the state to preach and provide other services, like presiding over weddings.
The wedding that caused the outbreak was at a church in East Millinocket and the reception was held at the Big Moose Inn about 17 miles away. In addition to the questions raised about guests wearing masks at the church, the reception violated the state virus safety guideline that prohibits more than 50 people from gathering in an enclosed space. Authorities have said that more than 65 people attended the event at the Big Moose Inn.
In a statement shared with PEOPLE, Laurie Cormier, the owner of the venue, acknowledged the inn made an “error in the interpretation” of the state restriction regarding the number of occupants.
She said the staff split the wedding guests between two rooms in order to comply with the state mandate. The establishment initially had its license revoked, but it was later reinstated.
Officials connected the event to outbreaks at a nursing home and a jail in Maine. A secondary contact of a wedding guest, who is a nursing home staffer at Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison, became infected, leading to 15 more people at the nursing home to test positive for the coronavirus. Maplecrest is more than 100 miles from the wedding’s location.
A staff member at York County Jail in Alfred who attended the wedding also contracted the coronavirus, spreading it to 19 additional staffers, seven of their family members and 46 inmates at the jail, which is more than 200 miles from Millinocket.
"The virus favors gatherings," Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav D. Shah said at a press conference. "It does not distinguish between happy events like a wedding celebration or sad farewells like a funeral."
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.