The scene Sunday at Calvary Baptist Church on High Street in Sanford Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The pastor of a Sanford church tied to a coronavirus outbreak in Millinocket said Sunday that members of his congregation were coping well with their own cases of COVID-19.

Maine health authorities this weekend said they were looking into whether five COVID-19 cases at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford are connected to a Millinocket wedding reception outbreak that has led to more than 120 coronavirus infections across the state.

A member of the Sanford church officiated at the Millinocket-area wedding on Aug. 7, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Nirav Shah, confirmed at a news briefing Tuesday. Shah declined to name the officiant, saying the agency does not give out information about individuals.

The pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Todd Bell, posted to his Twitter account on Aug. 6, saying he was flying north to officiate a wedding in northern Maine. He followed up with a tweet about the wedding with a photograph that showed Mount Katahdin, which overlooks Millinocket.

In an email exchange Sunday, Bell said he has not been responding to interview requests because news outlets “seek fear and drama not truth!”

Bell said that all five people with confirmed COVID-19 cases at Calvary Baptist Church “have finished their quarantine and are doing well.”

“One of the cases is my 78 year old dad who’s doing fine now,” he said.

He did not respond to questions about the East Millinocket nuptials or precautions taken at the Sanford church.

The wedding reception outbreak has directly or indirectly infected 123 people and led to one death from COVID-19, according to the Maine CDC. The outbreak spread from a wedding attendee to the York County Jail, which had 54 confirmed cases on Friday, and also to Maple Crest Rehabilitation Center in Madison, which had nine confirmed cases last week.

In a video broadcast of Calvary Baptist’s services this past Wednesday, Bell said he was happy to see about 30 worshippers there in person, and said people should be coming to church “all the more” these days.

“Many in our ministry have been sick, but to God be the glory, they’re all getting better,” he said in the video, adding later, “Many of those who have experienced this COVID-19 have been released from their quarantines and they’re doing better.”

He and other church leaders attended the service without masks, and appeared to come within 6 feet of one another in the video. The camera didn’t pan over the pews to give a sense of whether social distancing and masks were in use there.

In a Facebook post late Saturday night, Bell said: “Shoes polished! Bible message in the works! Saturday nights are special! Well GLORY!!!”

On Sunday afternoon, Deb Marchand, a neighbor who lives across the street from the church, said Calvary Baptist had held in-person services that day, with Bell present. Marchand expressed concern that conducting in-person worship without masks or social distancing could endanger the community.

Marchand, who is 63, considers herself at high risk from COVID-19, given that she has heart issues and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which causes breathing problems that the respiratory virus could exacerbate. But more than herself, she said, she worries for the larger community – and for the children whom she has seen holding hands as they attend church events.

“I’m very concerned for our community,” she said. “All of us. Especially the children.”

Bell is a licensed pilot who operates Wings With the Word, a mission of the church to spread the Gospel and establish ministries in remote parts of the state. Part of that outreach is a daily radio address. In the segment that aired Aug. 6, Bell said he was headed to northern Maine to perform the wedding of a couple he had known since their births.

The Maine CDC is notifying people who are known to have been in close contact with confirmed patients in the Sanford outbreak. But anyone who attended services at Calvary Baptist from Aug. 9 through Aug. 23, or who attended the church’s vacation Bible school between Aug. 10 and Aug. 14, could also have been exposed, health officials said.

The Maine CDC advises those affiliated with the church to watch for symptoms of COVID-19, which include cough, fever, shortness of breath, fatigue and body aches. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should not go to work or attend gatherings “of any size,” officials said.

State officials last week restored the license of the Millinocket wedding reception venue, Big Moose Inn, after it corrected safety violations. Officials are considering more sanctions for Tri Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket, which hosted the wedding itself, and for the wedding couple, Shah said Tuesday.


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