Several large Church of God congregations in Cleveland, Tennessee, are re-closing their doors because of an outbreak of COVID-19 infections that hit members after in-person services and a large revival event.
In a series of posts in the past week on the Westmore Church of God Facebook page, lead pastor of the church Kelvin Page reported one, then five and then at least 12 cases of COVID-19 in his congregation. In the days since, people connected to the church said the outbreak is two or three times that number.
Page did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.
In April, Westmore held drive-in services. This expanded to include an in-person service in May that involved spaced seating, Page said in a video posted to Facebook at the time. On May 31, the church held an in-person service in the sanctuary for the grand opening of its new church building on Legacy Parkway in Cleveland.
During the opening service, and in several services since, the church building was crowded and around 20 people sang in the choir. In multiple videos posted to Facebook and during the service on June 14, Page encouraged people to focus on their faith to end the coronavirus.
"Aren't you tired of COVID?" Page asked the crowd on June 14. "I'm tired of it. I'm ready for it to go in the name of Jesus and I believe by faith it will. It's on the downturn."
People who felt at risk for the coronavirus were encouraged to watch online or sit in a separate part of the church building where more distance was possible. Scenes of the crowd shown during the services do not appear to show anyone wearing a mask.
On June 22, Westmore held a regional worship service for the Tennessee Church of God State Office, part of a monthlong tour of Church of God congregations in Tennessee by church officials. Several hundred people, from Cleveland and surrounding counties, attended the three-hour event and were not following many of the coronavirus guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The general overseer of the Church of God denomination, Tim Hill, spoke at the gathering, which also featured gospel singer Jason Crabb.
On June 24, two days after that gathering, Page announced the first COVID-19 case in his congregation. The next day, Page announced in a Facebook video that there were five cases in the church. The day after that, June 26, Page said there were at least 12 confirmed cases and the church services would be online-only for June 28 and July 5.
The coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets released when someone is speaking. Speaking louder, or singing, releases more droplets. If enough of the virus is released and ingested by someone else - through inhaling or rubbing their eyes, for example - that person will become infected. Health officials have warned that enclosed spaces where people are in close contact and releasing droplets dramatically increases the risk of infection compared to being outdoors and more physically distant.
According to a post on the church's Facebook page, face coverings will be "strongly encouraged" when the church reconvenes on July 12.
The Tennessee Church of God State Office, the group that held the gathering at Westmore, announced it would close its Chattanooga offices this week for COVID-19 cleaning.
T. Wayne Dority, state administrative bishop, said the decision was due to a continued upward trend in COVID-19 cases in Tennessee for the second time in two weeks.
According to data analysis by the Times Free Press, the number of new coronavirus cases reported each day in the state has continued trending upward for more than a month. Dority did not respond to a follow-up question regarding this information.
South Cleveland Church of God also announced it would return to online-only services after a confirmed COVID-19 case. The church - which returned to in-person services in May with spaced seating, will meet virtually through July 5. South Cleveland had previously offered an indoor, outdoor and virtual option for services.
The number or severity of church outbreaks in the area remains largely unknown, unless church leaders report them publicly. Amanda Goodhard, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health Southeast Regional Office, said her office only reports coronavirus clusters connected to long-term care facilities.
The outbreak in Cleveland followed a similar re-opening and re-closing in North Georgia, where, in May, Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in Ringgold re-closed its doors to in-person services after it was linked to three COVID-19 cases.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.