The Calvary Baptist Church has been linked to the state's largest coronavirus outbreak through its pastor, Todd Bell, who officiated a wedding in Millinocket on Aug. 7. Credit: Nick Schroeder / BDN

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Faith is a wonderful thing. It can help people find and maintain purpose, find calm in trying times, develop or strengthen unshakable values to help guide them throughout their lives.

Pastor Todd Bell of the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford would have people put their faith in God, not the government. But that is a false choice, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

People of all faiths and religions should continue to lean on their spiritual beliefs during this ongoing period of society-wide upheaval and change. But those beliefs, as helpful and necessary as they may be on an individual and collective level, do not shield the people who hold them or their fellow community members from the spread of a virus that is survivable for most people but still has claimed almost 200,000 lives in this country. Nor does it shield them from the responsibility of being good citizens and caring about their neighbors.

Bell’s faith did not prevent COVID-19 from spreading at the Katahdin area wedding he officiated, or among his own congregation. It did not stop over 140 cases now being linked to that wedding and reception. It did not stop three people, as of Friday, from dying in connection to that outbreak.

Government requirements and recommendations, had they been followed at the wedding, could have helped prevent or at least lessen the severity of that outbreak. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but had the 62-guest reception complied with the state’s limit of 50 people for indoor events, had it been held outdoors, or had guests worn masks, the outcome could have been a lot different.

In Sanford, the outbreak associated with Bell’s church had grown to 10 people as of Thursday. He told congregants during recent church services that the media wasn’t reporting about the members who “have finished quarantine and are in church tonight,” according to Maine Public.

“We’re just gonna go on with things. We’re not going to be ruled by fear. We’re going to be governed by faith,” Bell said. “Can somebody give me an amen?”

The U.S. and Maine should not be governed by fear; we should be governed by facts. And the fact is that our state has been a national leader in terms of managing the spread of the virus. The Katahdin area wedding outbreak, fueled in part by non-compliance with government rules, has worsened the situation.

Bell has advised his followers to wear masks if they want, but said doing so was “like keeping a mosquito out of a chain-link fence.” That just doesn’t match up with the scientific realities of mask-wearing.

Study after study have indicated that face coverings, combined with social distancing and good hygiene practices, can help reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Are masks guaranteed to prevent people from getting the disease? Certainly not. Wearing a mask, however, does help protect the people around you. We’re no theologians, but that would seem to cut to the core of Jesus’ commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Importantly, most churches are following the state’s COVID-19 rules.

“We understand that part of what God is giving to us right now is an invitation to care for our neighbors,” the Ret. Rev. Thomas James Brown, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, said in a recent BDN story. “One of the ways we can care for our neighbors is to do everything we can to slow and stop the spread of this virus. That means following every possible safety protocol.”

Americans should keep faith in their God. They should also put faith in the research and findings of the experts who have specific public health knowledge and experience. It does not and should not have to be a binary choice between the two.

Above all right now, people should be able to have faith that their neighbors care about their well-being. We can demonstrate that to one another by making compassionate choices based on facts.