At First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, NC, an indoor Christmas event has spawned 75 Covid cases thus far. The event at the Southern Baptist-affiliated church occurred on December 5th. The church has suspended indoor worship for 30 days.
North Carolina exempts faith communities for its mass gathering restrictions, and there have been outbreaks in other churches in the state. In a November 11th letter, The Rt. Rev. José A. McLoughlin, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, directs churches to follow the state’s mass gathering numbers. Clergy may use their judgment about whether to hold indoor worship.
Concerning the outbreak at First Baptist, the Citizen-Times yesterday reported:
[S]ome who attended told the Citizen-Times the church was crowded, many people were not wearing masks and choir members, without masks, were singing shoulder to shoulder.
“To date, the Health Department has identified 75 individuals who have tested positive as a result of the event,” the department said in a Dec. 17 press release. “The Health Department is working to identify any additional close contacts of these individuals.”
There are no restrictions on faith communities in North Carolina. The state Health Department website states:
The mass gathering limit and other requirements do not apply to worship, religious, and spiritual gatherings, funeral ceremonies, wedding ceremonies, and other activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights. Individuals are encouraged to follow the 3 Ws to reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19.
State restrictions last updated on December 11 limit most other indoor gatherings to 10 persons.
The impact of the event was immediately visible on the church’s Facebook page, where upbeat posts about the holidays and upcoming events quickly gave way to last-minute event cancellations and “special announcements” from the pastors about new COVID-19 cases among congregants. Senior Pastor Steve Scoggins, the grandfatherly head of the church, promised in a sermon to post video of the holiday musical celebration on the church’s Facebook page, but no such video was found on there following news of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The holiday musical wasn’t the only church event that eschewed social distancing. First Baptist has held in-person services and events throughout the pandemic, even inviting other churches’ congregations to its services and vice versa, according to its Facebook posts. Scoggins delivered the keynote address at North Carolina Baptist Convention on Nov. 10, which drew 500 attendees, per the convention’s own website.
In [a] video of another event apparently held around the same time as the Dec. 5 caroling session and posted to Facebook a day after, more than 50 people were seen sitting shoulder to shoulder in the church orchestra and choir performing an arrangement of “In Dulci Jubilo.” Some wore masks, but most did not, as they were singing or playing instruments. … Scoggins said that church staff had taken the temperature of all the performers and congregants upon entry. But in a Facebook post four days after the event, the church asked congregants to simply “consider staying home” if they were experiencing cold symptoms or a cough.
A joke Scoggins made during his Dec. 6 sermon seemed to indicate the coronavirus had already begun to spread among the congregation. “You know what I appreciate? So many people not coming to church when they’re sick,” Scoggins said in a Dec. 6 sermon. “I really appreciate that. God bless you. We’ve had enough sharing of that kind of stuff.” His sermon also featured a clip from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Today the church’s Facebook page is not available. Its letter to members of the church is here.