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Church pauses in-person services after Christmas pageant infects dozens

First Baptist Church has paused on-site worship services and ministry activities for 30 days after a widespread Covid-19 outbreak following a Christmas pageant two weeks ago.

"The current wave of virus infection is so widespread that we must take action out of concern for the safety of our church, our community, and especially those who are most vulnerable in our midst," the church's senior pastor, Steve Scoggins, and the Board of Deacons said in a statement on the First Baptist website.

"The covid thing hit us and has hit several churches in the community so we decided to take a pause for about 30 days and reevaluate at the end of the 30 days to see what steps we need to take if we come back in person," Robert Bridges, the chairman of the Board of Deacons, said in an interview. "We did have a pageant, we had three services — one Friday night, one Saturday afternoon and one Sunday night. We had pretty good attendance in each one of them."

The Henderson County Department of Public Health confirmed in a news release on Thursday that it had identified a Covid-19 cluster "associated with a holiday celebration event" at the church on the Dec. 5, 6 and 7.

To date, the Health Department has identified 75 individuals who have tested positive as a result of the event. The Health Department is working to identify any additional close contacts of these individuals. The CDC defines close contact as being within approximately six feet of an infected person with COVID-19 for a cumulative 15 minutes.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services defines clusters of COVID-19 in non-congregate living settings as a minimum of five cases with illness onsets or initial positive results within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases.

Although the church gatherings were large, they did not violate the law, a health department spokesman Andrew Mundhenk said.

"While Gov. Cooper’s indoor mass gathering limit of 10 people remains in effect, worship, religious, spiritual gatherings, wedding ceremonies, funeral services, and other First Amendment activities are not subject to it," he said.

Henderson County continues to see an increase in COVID-19 cases generated from social gatherings such as parties, family and neighborhood get-togethers. To help reduce the spread of COVID-19 at private social gatherings, the Health Department urges residents to avoid large get-togethers and to continue practice of the 3Ws: Wear a face covering, Wait six feet apart and Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. 

More guidance on community events is available at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services website.

Scoggins, the senior minister, told church members that Covid-19 was spreading in a Facebook post on Dec. 12, a week after the Christmas show.
"Our hearts and our prayers go out to all who have contracted this virus the past few weeks!" he wrote. "It has run not only through our church members, but also through many of our staff and leaders as well. We are going to need a second week of being “online only” to get us healthy and safe enough to meet again."

Bridges, the board of deacons chair, attended the Friday night service, during which the choir sang, unmasked, and the church orchestra played, also without face coverings.

Bridges, a retired teacher and guidance counselor who was elected to the Henderson County School Board on Nov. 3, said he has avoided getting Covid-19 so far.

"I have not had it and don’t plan to get it," he said.

Here is the statement the church posted:

"With a strong sense of unity, our ministers and deacons have decided to put our church on a thirty-day pause in regard to on-site worship. This also includes all ministry activities. The current wave of virus infection is so widespread that we must take action out of concern for the safety of our church, our community, and especially those who are most vulnerable in our midst.

"We will look at conditions in mid-January to see how and when we should move forward. Our hearts and our prayers go out to all who are dealing with the effects of this virus. We have tried to call and pray with many in our church who were given positive diagnoses this week. We want to do everything we can to help those who are in need. I am so grateful for the good work of the hospitals and health care workers in our area. They are true heroes. Our medical professionals are putting to use the many great lessons they have learned in how to treat people. I am also extremely grateful to see the rollout of the vaccinations that could be God’s way of bringing this pandemic to an end!

"Even though we will not meet as a church over the next 30 days, we can never stop 'being the church.' It is time for us to check on each other, call each other, pray with each other, and help each other! We will maintain a strong online presence to bring encouragement to God’s people."