SOMERSWORTH, New Hampshire — The family of the defiant Baptist pastor linked to Maine’s largest COVID-19 outbreak after officiating a wedding near Millinocket in August will gather next month for another wedding and reception, just a few miles from virus hotspots in York County.
It is unclear whether Todd Bell, head of Sanford’s Calvary Baptist Church and a religious school, will conduct the ceremony between his son and a New Hampshire woman at an indoor service on Oct. 17 at South Church, a Unitarian Universalist church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But a “family minister” will officiate the ceremony, said Jennifer Leyden, a spokesperson for the church.
About 50 are expected to attend the 20-minute wedding in a sanctuary designed to hold 525 people, Leyden said. It will be “an in-and-out service” that won’t include a choir. Attendees are expected to wear masks, provide names and phone numbers for contact tracing and observe social distance guidelines intended to prevent community spread of the coronavirus.
Later that day, the family will hold a separate post-wedding reception at the Hall at Great Falls, an event center in Somersworth, New Hampshire, just one-tenth of a mile from the Maine border and roughly 15 miles from Sanford. The reception was listed on a public wedding invitation website and was removed after a Bangor Daily News reporter asked a member of the Bell family for comment. The family member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the event.
Despite the listing, a website for the Hall at Great Falls states that “no events are being scheduled” due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple attempts to reach the Hall at Great Falls were unsuccessful. The bride did not respond to multiple calls and text messages.
“I would be more worried about the reception than I would sitting in a church with a mask on for 15, 20 minutes,” Leyden said.
The gatherings are planned as Pastor Bell and his family remain defiant about the coronavirus pandemic and health advisories from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, saying “God — not government” would solve the virus amid outbreaks in York County and elsewhere in Maine.
Infection rates have spiked since Bell officiated an Aug. 7 wedding in the Millinocket region, according to the Maine CDC. At least eight Mainers have died and 180 have been infected after catching COVID-19 in connection with the wedding. One attendee who works at the York County Jail has been linked to an outbreak there of at least 80 inmates, staff and their families. Seven deaths were among residents of Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison, according to Nirav Shah, director of the state’s CDC. Another was an 88-year-old woman from East Millinocket.
None attended the wedding at a church in East Millinocket or the reception at an inn on Millinocket Lake, which Shah said was a reminder of how far-reaching the effects of COVID-19 can be.
Last week, Bell continued to ignore local ordinances at his Sanford Christian Academy, according to the Maine Monitor. Days after Sanford city councilors voted to close outdoor parks and fine citizens $100 for not wearing masks indoors or in a confined outdoor space, students filed into Sanford Christian Academy unmasked.
Sanford, a city of 22,000, reported 37 cases on Aug. 23. As of Sept. 20, 108 cases have been detected, according to the Maine CDC.
“COVID-19 has now infected virtually every aspect of life in the Sanford area,” Shah said.
While neighboring states have issued them, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, has resisted a statewide mask mandate in public places. The city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, instituted one on July 13, followed by 10 other large cities and towns in the state. Somersworth has resisted a mandate. In August, Sununu required masks for gatherings of 100 or more.
More than a dozen weddings slated for this summer and fall at South Church have been rescheduled for 2021. The wedding of the pastor’s son is the lone exception, Leyden said, partly because they “decreased their guest count due to the virus.”
South Church typically offers an in-house minister for weddings, but the Bell family declined to use one in favor of their own. Leyden said that South Church is one of the few New Hampshire churches there that doesn’t impose religious requirements for wedding officiants.
“As long as you are legally registered to perform weddings in the state of New Hampshire, you can use whoever you like,” Leyden said.
The Bell family’s planned wedding ceremony is a rare indoor event at South Church these days. The church suspended in-person functions months ago and transitioned Sunday services online, conducting a small handful of socially distant outdoor gatherings. Church officials “won’t even discuss” opening for in-person services until Spring of 2021, Leyden said.