SANFORD, Maine — A recent COVID-19 outbreak that has infected at least 10 people affiliated with an evangelical church whose pastor officiated at an August wedding that spurred Maine’s largest virus outbreak has been frustrating for Matthew Gardner.
The 36-year-old Sanford man is an air quality contractor and holds multiple certificates from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Understanding how small particles travel through the air and potentially make people sick is his specialty.
People in Sanford need to “stop fighting science,” Gardner said. “COVID-19 indiscriminately doesn’t care what you believe or how much you pray.”
State and national health experts advise people to minimize gatherings, wash their hands frequently, maintain a distance of 6 feet apart whenever possible and wear cloth face coverings in public places where physical distancing is difficult to maintain.
The city enacted an emergency ordinance Thursday night that requires mask-wearing in public places and fines violators $100. The Sanford City Council voted 7-0 to enact the ordinance and said the emergency ordinance was not a political statement, but instead a safeguard of the community’s health as it battles coronavirus outbreaks.
At this point, Gardner and others in the central York County city of about 20,000 want life to return to normal there as quickly as possible, but they know beating the outbreak will take compliance. That’s why he finds the rhetoric coming from Pastor Todd Bell of the Calvary Baptist Church to be so damaging.
Bell’s church has continued holding in-person services since the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said it was investigating an outbreak there. The services have been complete with a maskless choir (coronavirus spreads especially well as a result of singing).
Public health officials haven’t confirmed a link between the church outbreak and the Millinocket-area wedding that Bell officiated. But the same man is at the center of both.
From the Aug. 7 wedding, where guests at the reception were not wearing masks, the virus spread and infected at least 161 people in the state, according to the Maine CDC. It’s resulted in the deaths of three people who did not attend the event. Those affected by the wedding outbreak include 83 inmates and employees at the York County Jail in Alfred, along with family members of jail employees. The jail outbreak — Maine’s largest to date in a correctional facility — began after a jail employee attended the Millinocket-area wedding and later tested positive for the coronavirus.
Sanford has also seen two new coronavirus outbreaks over the past week — at a private club and American Legion Hall. As of Wednesday, York County had 161 active COVID-19 cases, up from 70 at the start of August.
Many in Sanford have distanced themselves from Bell after the pastor delivered a defiant sermon last week that cast doubt on health officials’ guidelines, arguing that “God — not government,” would fix the coronavirus pandemic. Bell told his congregation that wearing masks was “like keeping a mosquito out of a chain-link fence.”
As recently as last month, some in the community said Bell and others were visiting door-to-door at homes in the area without wearing masks in an effort to get them to come to church.
On Wednesday, Sanford Mayor Tom Cote issued a letter urging residents to take pandemic orders from Gov. Janet Mills and state health officials seriously. He noted that compliance with mask-wearing and social-distancing rules has been less common in Sanford than in York County’s coastal communities.
“If you are refusing to adhere to the governor’s orders on the basis of your individual freedoms, then you, not the collective you, but you personally, are responsible for any delays to our kids going to school, playing sports, and participating in school activities,” Cote said.
“We are not practicing what we preach.”
Tim Aballo owns and operates The Brew Shoppe in Shapleigh, a community of about 2,700 roughly 9 miles northwest of Sanford.
As a retailer in the virus hotspot of York County, Aballo said he’s been more watchful since tourist season began. There’s a sign posted on his business with a picture of Bane, the masked supervillain from DC Comics. It reads, “be like Bane, wear the mask.”
About 80 percent of customers wear masks, Aballo said, or will turn around and retrieve a mask before entering because they “forgot it in the car.”
The other 20 percent?
Well, they’re the other 20 percent, he said.
“I don’t have the patience for a screaming match or the personal finance for a lawyer to pay for my defense for the unwanted dental procedures I will administer in my doorway,” Aballo said.
While some will always likely choose to ignore the virus, that hasn’t been an option for Gardner.
This summer, one of his employees needed to take time off work because of the virus, setting contracts behind for months. And when multiple tenants in his buildings lost work this spring as a result of the pandemic, Gardner waived rent entirely. The landlord said he lost about $9,000 in the process.
Gardner’s wife lost her grandmother to the coronavirus in April. Their family had to watch the funeral over Zoom.
Gardner’s sister is a nurse in a COVID-19 unit in Florida, where thousands of new cases emerge daily.
For Gardner, the virus is personal. He said the community needs to work together if they want to contain the outbreak.
“Those of us with kids in public schools, at-risk family members, people with underlying conditions and those who wish to protect business incomes, we owe it to ourselves to act much better than this,” he said.
But Gardner said he’s concerned that people won’t take the virus seriously when summer ends and it’s time to return indoors, where community spread is more likely.
“That light at the end of the tunnel we’re all looking forward to could in fact be an oncoming train if we’re not careful.”