County health officials have placed the Bethany Slav Missionary Church, a Pentecostal place of worship in a suburb of Sacramento, at the heart of one of the country’s largest outbreak groups. The church is said to be the largest Slavic congregation in the United States, with 3,500 members and total participation in some services of up to 10,000.
The county public health director said that a third of the coronavirus cases in Sacramento county were linked to places of worship. Health officials on Thursday counted 350 cases in the county, with 10 deaths.
Seventy-one of the members who tested positive live in Sacramento County, and members who live in other counties can also be infected. A parishioner has died, officials said, and a pastor said in an online sermon that the church’s senior pastor was hospitalized and two others were seriously ill.
Health officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but Sacramento County director of public health Peter Beilenson told the Los Angeles Times that it was “scandalous that this would happen,” adding that public health directives prevailed over freedom of religious expression.
Beilenson said Thursday that in-person services at the Slavic mega-church have now ceased.
But he said church leaders have pushed back on previous attempts to discuss the cases. “They basically told us to leave them alone,” Beilenson told Sacramento Bee. “It is extremely irresponsible and dangerous for the community.”
Church leaders did not immediately respond to Guardian phone calls, but a pre-recorded voice message indicated that most religious services had been moved online.
Places of worship across the county have come under the spotlight in recent weeks after resisting or delaying enforcing standards of social distancing. Cuddles, handshakes, or passing a common donation basket can easily spread the virus from person to person.
Faith Presbyterian Church, also in Sacramento, killed two parishioners of the virus and a total of five people tested positive for the virus, reported the Sacramento Bee.
Forty minutes south, in Lodi, church leaders sent a “cease and desist” letter to the city after police entered the church during a March 25 service, telling authorities said the church “intended to continue meeting this Sunday and all Wednesdays and Sundays to come.”
Leaders of the Bethany Slav Missionary Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a press release issued by the church challenges information from county health officials and the media.
The statement said a church leader said in a video speech on March 14 that the church “will comply with all CDC regulations and guidelines. He also disputes the number of cases that have been linked to the church and said that he was never informed that any of its members had died.
“It has been reported that 71 members of this church have fallen ill. These reports are believed to be inaccurate and falsely emphasize this church, “the statement said.
He adds that the total number of county cases linked to places of worship “has been falsely linked to the Bethany Slav Missionary Church. The repetition by the media of such unfounded representations invites ridicule, hatred and violence against our ecclesial community. “
In an interview with a local ABC branch, Beilenson said the county released the name of the church for public safety.
“The reason we are disclosing this is not to provoke outcasts or to slander anyone, but to really highlight the importance of coming together, not only in church, but also in prayer meetings in people’s homes, ”said Beilenson.
The Sacramento County Health Department released additional information in response to the church press release on Friday, confirming the figures it had reported and saying that the county coroner only informed the family of the deceased. the cause of death.
“Although we know that the church as a whole has stopped meeting and that management is hosting online services, several sources have told us that there are groups that continue to meet in homes, despite the fact that public health order not to meet with anyone. apart from household members. These rallies were directly linked to the case clusters in the community, ”said the health department.
“In no case does the County of Sacramento tolerate ridicule, hatred or violence towards this church, any other church or any member of society. “