A screen shot from a YouTube video of Todd Bell’s sermon Sunday at the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford.

Maura Herlihy was feeling good about the low number of COVID-19 cases in Sanford, where she lives and works. But three recent outbreaks – at the city’s fire department, the Calvary Baptist Church and the York County Jail in neighboring Alfred – changed all that.

“There is no question the anxiety around town has increased. I’ve heard that from a lot of people,” said Herlihy, who serves as a city councilor.

For some, she said, the anxiety is mixed with frustration toward members of the church, especially its pastor, Todd Bell, who appears to be defying safety guidelines such as wearing face coverings and physical distancing.

Bell has gained attention in Maine since it was revealed that he officiated the Aug. 7 wedding in Millinocket that has been linked to more than 130 cases of COVID-19 and one death, that of 83-year-old Theresa Dentremont of Millinocket. State epidemiologists have connected the wedding infections to an outbreak at the York County Jail, where one of the wedding guests works and where 66 employees and inmates have now tested positive.

But the pastor has been far from repentant about any role he may have played in Maine’s biggest COVID-19 outbreaks and instead has framed himself as a victim of a culture war.

Bell did not return a message left Tuesday by a reporter and has said he has no interest in speaking with the media. But he said plenty during a sermon Sunday at his church, a recording of which was posted on YouTube before it was removed Tuesday, along with the rest of the church’s videos.

“I love liberty,” he said in a Southern accent that revealed his roots in Florida and North Carolina. “And I want the people of God to enjoy liberty. If they want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If they want to wear a nuclear fallout suit, please wear it. We will laugh at you, but we will let you wear a nuclear fallout suit. If you want to have the liberty to have done your own research – that masks are kind of like trying to keep a mosquito out of a chain-link fence.”

Scientific research has determined that widespread wearing of face coverings can help limit the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, which is transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets.

It’s not clear whether masks were prevalent during Sunday’s service at Calvary Baptist Church. Prior to Bell’s sermon, however, a group of 15 people stood closely together on the stage and sang together unmasked – an activity that health experts say is ill-advised during the pandemic.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that the state has no interest in making the church a “pariah,” and chose his words carefully when asked about the church and Bell. He said any risk for COVID-19 resides with individuals, not with buildings.

But Shah said the state continues to investigate that outbreak, including whether the church is following state guidelines – even as Bell has essentially confirmed that it’s not.

Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said that while the state doesn’t license churches, it does have authority under the current emergency order to protect public health.

“We have those enforcement tools and, if needed, will use them,” she said, although she did not specify what they are.

Some churches have pushed back forcefully against COVID-19 restrictions since the early days of the pandemic. In May, Calvary Chapel in Orrington sued the state over early guidelines from Gov. Janet Mills that prohibited in-person religious services. A federal judge sided with Mills.

“The state is managing an extraordinary array of issues, and it has responded to the challenges raised by COVID-19 by establishing uniform standards and restrictions based on evolving scientific evidence,” Judge Nancy Torresen wrote.

Churches in other states, some backed by the conservative Thomas More Society, have filed lawsuits challenging restrictions as violations of religious liberty. One of them, Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, has been holding services for weeks in defiance of state and local limits on indoor gatherings, The Associated Press reported last month.

“We will obey God rather than men,” the church’s pastor, John MacArthur, said in a message to his congregation. “He will be on our side.”

Bell’s outspoken opposition to public health guidelines is the latest example of the disconnect between science and faith in some places, which the pandemic has highlighted. Bell used similar language when talking about a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

“They are lining all of us up to get a vaccine, that we know is going to be 40 to 60 percent productive,” he said Sunday. “If you don’t mind aborted baby tissue, fetal tissue, to be injected into you, then go on and get the vaccine. But here this morning, I mind that. That’s against my conscience. And I am going to trust one, who is in all and over all and through all. He’s the one that has the power to remove pestilences.”

There is no truth to his assertion that fetal tissue is part of any potential COVID-19 vaccine, although, historically, some vaccines have been developed using tissue from abortions.

Bell’s words and actions have created tension among Sanford residents.

Megan Gean-Gendron, executive director of York County Shelter Programs, said concerns have risen dramatically in recent days about the risk of COVID-19 in the community. Gean-Gendron partnered with the Calvary Baptist Church in June on a meals program, but said she disagrees with Bell on the science and has told him so.

“We have very different beliefs on the pandemic,” she said. “We’ve taken it seriously from the beginning and feel like we can’t do anything to risk the health of the people we serve.”

As such, her organization has declined any volunteers from the church for now.

“For me, you either follow the guidelines or you don’t. There’s no middle ground,” Gean-Gendron said.

Brad Littlefield, a former city councilor who has been involved in local politics for years, is not a member of Bell’s church but knows Bell and said he supports the pastor.

“I believe in the First Amendment, and I believe their rights are being infringed upon,” Littlefield said. “The government shouldn’t be telling people they can’t worship. If they want to go, they can go.”

Maine’s COVID-19 guidelines don’t prohibit church services, but call for safety measures, such as wearing masks, spacing worshipers apart and setting limits on the number of congregants who can be together.

Littlefield said he hasn’t heard from many people in Sanford who are concerned about the recent outbreaks.

“I tend to stay away from people who say they want to shut everything down,” he said.

Todd Bell in 2017

According to a biography of Bell on the Calvary Baptist website, he has “faithfully served the Lord since 1989 when God called him to preach.”

He and his family moved to Maine in 1996 and have been involved in the founding of several churches, including the Tri-Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket, where he officiated the Aug. 7 wedding. The Bells moved to Sanford in 2003 and founded the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, which expanded in 2010 to include a school, Sanford Christian Academy. One of Bell’s daughters is a teacher there.

Bell, who is 50, talked about the school, which enrolls about 70 children, during his sermon Sunday.

“I’ve done my own research. We’re going five days a week,” he said. Masks will not be required, he said, but “we’ve got plans in place for sickness. You’re not going to quarantine a virus. It happens.”

Bell also has established churches in Jackman, Fort Kent, New Vineyard, Whiting and Islesboro, and visits them by private plane through his aviation ministry, “Wings with the Word.”

In Sanford, he’s been involved in outreach at the county jail and has served on its board. His church has worked with the York County Shelter Programs on providing meals and with the police department on addiction treatment.

Herlihy said she’s known Bell for years. She used to own Eastside Convenience on High Street, near the church, and said that he and his church have had a positive impact on the community.

She also said she’s not surprised at Bell’s defiance, just disappointed.

“I would think as a man of God, he would want to think about all of God’s children,” she said.

Bell has acknowledged that he performed the Millinocket wedding that led to the state’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak, and he confirmed in his sermon Sunday that six families from his church in Sanford attended the wedding. Five people who attend the Sanford church have been infected with COVID-19.

Many people who attended the wedding, the bride and groom included, have been silent about the outbreak and have made their social media accounts private.

Herlihy doesn’t think the debate needs to be about whether faith and science are at odds, but whether people should be more mindful about how their individual behavior impacts the greater community.

“I guess I don’t know why anyone would choose not to follow these protocols to keep people safe,” she said. “I know of nothing in any religious text that tells you to be selfish.”

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