BELFAST, Maine — The congregation of the First Church in Belfast hasn’t met together indoors since the coronavirus pandemic began in March.
The Revs. Joel Krueger and Kate Winter had planned a short, in-person service in the coming weeks. Congregants would wear masks and keep a safe distance. But the COVID-19 outbreak that spread after an indoor fellowship gathering at Brooks Pentecostal Church earlier this month uprooted that plan.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday reported that at least 49 cases of the virus had spread from the church outbreak. Three patients linked to the outbreak have been hospitalized.
And now religious leaders fear the state could enact another ban on in-person church services if coronavirus outbreaks from congregations aren’t contained.
“It’s painful, because there are people in our congregation who are longing to get back to worship. They really feel this loss. But it reignited the fears,” Winters said.
He said he’s sad for the Pentecostal Church in Brooks — but on the other hand, the congregation could have been more careful. Many who likely contracted the virus at the fellowship this month weren’t wearing masks or properly distancing, according to the Maine CDC.
“I’m not saying they’re bad, or anything,” Winters said. “It kind of makes it harder for us to get back into at least some kind of normal.”
The COVID-19 outbreak is the second high-profile one in Maine connected to a church. The first was the Katahdin-area wedding on Aug. 7, which by the end of September had led to eight deaths and at least 177 cases of COVID-19.
The trajectory of the Brooks church outbreak is unpredictable, but Waldo County faith leaders said they’re taking precautions to keep their congregation safe. They’re concerned the latest outbreak could change how — and if — they continue to gather in-person for services.
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On March 17, churches, mosques and synagogues throughout the state were shuttered by Gov. Janet Mills’ ban on indoor gatherings of more than 10 people. Many began streaming services to their congregations online. At the end of May, when the governor expanded the capacity of indoor gatherings to 50, it was a blessing for Jonathan Susee, lead pastor of the Little River Church in Belfast.
He hopes that indoor gatherings won’t be banned because of the outbreak, but the possibility has crossed the Baptist preacher’s mind.
“For us, it wouldn’t be ideal. But we did that for a few months at the beginning, and we could pivot again,” he said.
Many public health experts consider indoor church services among the higher-risk activities for COVID-19 because rituals like singing, hand-shaking and sitting closely to others are easy ways to spread the virus.
For some, it seems surreal that attending church is as risky as going to bars and nightclubs, at least in terms of the coronavirus.
Still, to decrease that risk, many churches have changed how services are conducted.
At Susee’s church, worshippers wear masks while entering and exiting and use one-way pathways designed so they won’t inadvertently meet face-to-face with someone else.
Inside the sanctuary, chairs are spread out far away from each other to allow for social distancing, and attendees are asked to sit with their households. Susee estimates that between 15 and 25 people attend Sunday morning services at the church, while others watch from a livestream on Facebook.
There has been a learning curve to all of this, he said, but it’s worth it.
“We care about the community,” he said. “We’ve approached this cautiously and optimistically, and graciously, too … We learned to use some broadcasting software. It took some effort. We figured things out over time.”
At Liberty Baptist Church, interim pastor Ian Jewett said the congregation has taken precautions to meet inside. They sit apart from each other, some wear masks during the whole service and everyone is asked to wear covering when they come and go.
Along with safety, he said he stresses unity and patience at a time when posts about masks and the coronavirus quickly devolve into fights and personal attacks on Facebook.
“It’s been a very polarizing issue. There’s a lot of hatred and division,” he said. “We try to stress a unity and a willingness to respect people where they’re at. To not come down in judgment on them, but to make room where our comfort levels are.”
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Jewett and the church’s deacons are still processing what the latest outbreak might mean for the congregation. Right now, he thinks they will continue to meet at the church, but he’s worried the outbreak might lead to further restrictions on indoor gatherings.
“For the most part, the government has left a lot of things to the churches, and haven’t infringed on our right to freely worship,” he said. “That has been a hot topic. I think a lot of Christians have been on high alert about that, and worried about these fundamental freedoms. It’s the last thing we would want to happen here.”
But Tom Seymour, the pastor of the Frankfort Congregational Church, said that other things are fundamental, too, including social responsibilities.
“Rights are one thing, but doing what is right is another thing,” he said.
Seymour said he believed his church — and many others — are doing what they can to prevent infections and outbreaks. It would be sad for them to get shut down because of the behavior of other congregations.
“It would be awful. It would be a needless thing,” he said. “I just hope that the other churches that got in trouble will change their ways and be more cooperative.”
He said the coronavirus is a “plague” and people need to recognize it’s a global reality.
“When this first came, I didn’t take it as seriously,” he said. “When the numbers started to grow, I thought — this is serious. I very quickly realized that this is more than just a passing thing.”
The pandemic is hard on everyone, he said, and many have sacrificed.
“Nobody likes this,” Seymour said. “Our way of life has been shattered. Upended,”
But he said, there “are things you have to do” — and so you do them.
“No person and no congregation is immune,” he said.