A pastor who officiated a Maine wedding that led to three coronavirus deaths and 147 infections is continuing to preach in person.
Pastor Todd Bell welcomed worshippers into Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford on Sunday, where he announced during his sermon that he’d hired a high-profile lawyer to defend his congregation’s religious rights, the Press Herald reported.
Bell gained notoriety in Sanford and surrounding communities after he officiated the August 7 wedding in Millinocket that fueled a large outbreak in central Maine.
Despite at least 10 members of his congregation testing positive for the virus in the wake of the wedding, Bell has insisted on holding in-person services at Calvary Baptist without masks or social distancing.
The pastor’s staunch defiance of pandemic precautions has led some local organizations to suspend collaboration with the church’s outreach programs.
Bell addressed the controversy in his sermon on Sunday, urging congregants to ignore critics and listen to him instead.
Pastor Todd Bell (pictured) has continued to hold in-person services at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Maine, even after he officiated a wedding that was linked to three coronavirus deaths and 147 infections
Bell welcomed worshippers into Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford (pictured) on Sunday
Sunday’s service was broadcast via livestream on the church’s website without video, so it was unclear how many people attended or whether they adhered to the state’s mask mandate, social distancing guidelines and 50-person limit on indoor gatherings.
In the livestream, Bell was heard inviting attendees to greet the people around them, according to the Press Herald.
During his sermon, Bell said that the church had continued to hold full-time classes through its affiliate youth academy.
He described how God sent a ‘perfect rainbow’ as a sign of support for that decision at an orientation event for the school last week.
The pastor also described how people outside the church had told him to ‘go back to North Carolina’ – where he lived prior to moving to Maine in the 90s – after he was tied to the wedding outbreak.
‘People think I’m a weirdo,’ he said. ‘They really do, and I’m glad I’m among friends here today.’
It’s believed the church stopped streaming video of services after footage from previous services on August 26 and 30 showed congregants standing close together and singing without masks – sparking criticism in the community.
Bell is seen giving a sermon during an in-person service on August 30, where worshippers ignored the state’s mask mandate and social distancing guidelines
Bell defended his insistence on holding in-person services in a radio address on Friday, revealing that he is seeking legal counsel from David Gibbs III, the founder, president and general counsel for the National Center for Life and Liberty (NCLL).
The NCLL bills itself as ‘a legal ministry that protects the rights of churches and Christian organizations nationwide’.
Bell did not specify what kind of work Gibbs would be doing for the church.
Gibbs confirmed to the Press Herald that he is working with Calvary Baptist but did not say if he was formally representing the church or what legal issues he might address.
On the NCLL website, Gibbs recommends that churches follow state and local regulations requiring that masks be worn during services.
He also notes that courts are likely to uphold governors’ orders regarding the pandemic.
Bell is seeking legal counsel from David Gibbs III (pictured) of the National Center for Life and Liberty
Churches around the country have repeatedly fought against COVID-19 restrictions – which in some cases have banned them from holding in-person services altogether – arguing that the rules violate religious liberty.
In Maine, Governor Janet Mills’ executive order limits indoor gatherings to 50 people and outdoor gatherings to 100 people, and requires that people keep physical distance at such gatherings.
Last week, Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew warned that the state has the authority to crack down on any activities that threaten public health, including religious services.
‘We have those enforcement tools and, if needed, will use them,’ Lambrew said.
Bell addressed the outbreak linked to the Millinocket wedding he officiated during a sermon last month, telling the congregation: ‘It was a beautiful wedding.
‘Six families from our church went there. We never expected to get COVID. Nobody expected to experience the things that happened because you went to a beautiful wedding like that.’
He said he had been on the receiving end of negative social media comments for officiating the wedding before quoting a Bible verse that reads: ‘Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.’
‘Men have reviled me,’ he said.
Bell’s Calvary Baptist Church went ahead and held indoor services on Sunday – just one day after CDC officials revealed they were investigating an outbreak of COVID-19 at his place of worship. Footage from a livestream of a service showed Bell giving a sermon
The wedding was held at the Tri-Town Baptist Church before about 65 people attended a crowded reception at the Big Moose Inn – exceeding the state’s restrictions on social gatherings.
Last week officials announced that 147 coronavirus cases had been linked to the wedding, among people who attended and who contracted the virus second-hand.
‘One of the things we’ve learned over the past six months of working with outbreaks and COVID-19 is that no outbreak is an island,’ Maine CDC Director Dr Nirav Shah said during a press briefing on Friday.
‘What this really hammers home is that outbreaks are not isolated events. One outbreak can quickly lead to several more outbreaks, especially in a close geographic area.’
MCDC spokesperson Robert Long told NBC News that three people have died from the outbreak and none of them had even attended the wedding.
Maine CDC officials announced that 147 coronavirus cases have been linked to an indoor reception at Big Moose Inn (pictured) in Millinocket, Maine
The map above shows case clusters linked to the Millinocket wedding
One of those victims was Theresa Dentremont, an 83-year-old woman who died at Millinocket Regional Hospital on August 21 after contracting the virus.
Detremont did not attend the wedding, but hospital staff believed she may have been infected by someone who did.
Her 97-year-old husband Frank Dentremont, who is a WWII veteran and the oldest resident of resident of East Millinocket, was hospitalized at the same facility a few days later with COVID-19.
His son, Frank Dentremont Jr, revealed in a Facebook post that his father had since miraculously recovered and was due to be discharged from the hospital on Wednesday.
Theresa Detremont, 83, (pictured) died from coronavirus after officials said she came into contact with someone who attended the Millinocket wedding
Dentremont Jr told the Washington Post that he recalled hearing about the wedding, but believed his father and stepmother would have been safe.
The couple had been self-isolating at their home for much of the pandemic given they fell into the high-risk COVID-19 category.
‘I had heard the stories about the wedding thing,’ he said.
‘I thought: “My dad and stepmom weren’t there. They’ve been quarantining themselves; they’ll be fine.” Who could have known?’
He also said he isn’t angry at those who went ahead with the wedding. The bride and groom have not been publicly identified.
‘Nobody did this consciously,’ Dentremont Jr said. ‘If they knew they were the ones at fault, I’m sure they’d feel terrible.’
He has described his stepmother as a ‘vivacious woman and wonderful mom’ who loved quilting and handing out handmade tree skirts as Christmas gifts.
The other two victims have not yet been publicly identified.
Theresa Dentremont, 83, died in Maine’s Millinocket Regional Hospital on August 21 after becoming infected with coronavirus. Her 97-year-old husband Frank Dentremont was hospitalized at the same facility a few days later with COVID-19 but has since recovered
More than 230 miles south, the York County Jail in Alfred reported a number of cases related to the outbreak.
Infections rose from 18 to 72 cases after an employee of the jail attended the wedding – a 54-case increase that affected nearly all levels of the detention center.
The numbers are broken down into 46 inmates, 19 staff members and seven family members of jail employees.
The employee who attended the wedding was among one of the first staffers to receive a positive diagnosis.
Another group hit by the recent outbreak were residents at Maple Crest Rehabilitation Center, a nursing home in Madison.
NBC News reported that the nursing home amassed 19 cases associated with the wedding, including eight residents and 11 staffers. A staff member of the nursing home attended the wedding.
Nursing homes and elderly citizens were also noted as vulnerable during the pandemic.
And finally, an outbreak was found at Calvary Baptist Church as 10 people tested positive for COVID-19.
Officials have said that the church’s cases have not been formally linked to any other outbreaks, but an investigation is ongoing.
‘We’re still investigating if there are any linkages among them. We have some hypotheses but as with any scientific endeavor, we’ve got to have more than just reports and unconfirmed notions,’ Shah said.
The York County Jail in Alfred reported a number of cases related to the wedding outbreak
The owner of the Big Moose Inn, Laurie Cormier, released a statement last week that explained the venue misinterpreted capacity rules and overbooked the venue.
‘It is important to note that because Big Moose Inn has separate rooms for dining as well as outdoor seating, the facility’s approved capacity during this time is 80 persons,’ Cormier wrote.
‘We understood that there could be no more than 50 persons in our largest room. We did make an error in the interpretation of that rule.
‘Our interpretation was that we could take a wedding party of more than 50 persons, and split them between two rooms as long as it didn’t exceed our total capacity or a specific room’s capacity.’
Cormier added: ‘The State – perhaps, rightfully so – assumes that individuals from a larger group would ignore the room restrictions, and take the opportunity to co-mingle.
While the US has amassed the largest number of coronavirus cases in the world, Maine’s cases and deaths have remained relatively low compared to other states.
Just over 4,700 cases and 134 deaths have been recorded in the state over the course of seven months.
Across the US, more than 6.3 million cases and 189,206 deaths have been reported to date.