The Brooks Pentecostal Church in Waldo County was closed Sunday morning, after state health officials said they had detected an outbreak involving 17 cases at the church. A sign on the church door said “Due to precautions, we will not be holding Sunday services or Wednesday evening prayer this week.” Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

BROOKS, Maine — An outbreak of 17 COVID-19 cases at a local church forced businesses to close and disrupted holiday plans in this small Waldo County town.

Ralph’s, a popular local cafe, was closed on Sunday after having been open the day before, and is expected to stay shuttered for a couple of weeks following the outbreak at Brooks Pentecostal Church, said Linda Lord, a Brooks selectman. A thrift shop run by a local church she attends, First Congregational Church of Brooks, also will stay closed “for a while,” she said. Halloween events are being canceled.

“Those are not going to happen,” Lord said. “It’s pretty scary.”

The spread of the virus in Brooks shattered the sense of safety that many residents had felt, despite an outbreak this spring in nearby Belfast, where 13 died and another 30 tested positive for the coronavirus. In addition to the local outbreak, three cases were reported this week at schools elsewhere in Waldo County in and near Belfast. Meanwhile, the number of cases is rising again in Maine and nationwide.

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“We felt comfortable getting together with families who we knew were being careful,” Lord said. “We won’t be doing that now.”

Pastor Matthew Shaw and other leaders of Brooks Pentecostal Church did not respond to messages seeking comment. It is unclear how and exactly when the coronavirus spread at the church, but state health officials have warned that anyone who attended a “fellowship rally” that the congregation hosted between Oct. 2 and Oct. 4 could have been exposed to the virus.

Carrie Plentus, who works at a hardware store in the heart of the town, said she lives just a quarter mile away from the Pentecostal church on Route 139. She said the outbreak is “a little concerning” but added that members of the church, like others in town, had largely been keeping to themselves.

Plentus, who drives by the church every Sunday on her way to work, said that earlier in the pandemic, the church had been holding services outside, with parishioners staying in their cars in the parking lot out front while listening to the pastor speak.

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Videos of services held inside the church, which date back to early June, are posted on the church’s Facebook page. Some videos that show outdoor services held in May at the church, which has an adult Sunday school and two services each Sunday, also are posted on Facebook.

“They’re not overly enthused by it, but are handling it the best they can,” Plentus said of local residents’ reaction to the outbreak. As time passed, some people seemed less on guard and fewer people were wearing masks around town, she said. But that’s changed since the latest outbreak.

“A lot more people have put them back on” in the past few days, she said. “They’re being more conscientious.”

The outbreak is the second at a Maine church since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March. Several other outbreaks Maine since then that have struck paper mills, schools, nursing homes, and at least one jail. The other church is Sanford’s Calvary Baptist Church, whose Pastor Todd Bell officiated at an August wedding in East Millinocket that infected more than 120 people and caused secondary outbreaks at a rehabilitation center in Madison and at the York County Jail in Alfred. Eight deaths from the disease have been linked to the August wedding.

Services at the congregational church in Brooks have been held outdoors for the past several months, including Sunday morning, and leaders and parishioners there do not plan to return to indoor services “until the virus is eradicated,” Lord said.

The town doesn’t plan any mandates beyond those issued by the state to avoid spreading the disease, Lord said.

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....