A wedding in rural Maine became a coronavirus “superspreader” event that left seven people dead and 177 infected. Now, for the community and wider region, which had relaxed social-distancing rules introduced earlier in the crisis, the news was a brutal wake-up call.
“When we heard of the outbreak… everyone really hunkered down,” said Cody McEwen, head of the town council. “As soon as the outbreak happened, we completely closed the town again.”
Some of the residents were clearly angry at the event’s organizers — starting with the tavern, whose license was temporarily suspended.
“I don’t think they should have had the wedding. I think it should have been limited like they were supposed to,” said Nina Obrikis, a member of the Baptist church where the ceremony was held.
“We can’t go nowhere or do nothing,” she said.
The nuptials in early August were attended by 65 people, breaking the official limit of 50 allowed at a gathering.
A ceremony at a church was followed by a reception at the Big Moose Inn — both venues near the picturesque town of Millinocket, whose population numbers just 4,000.
Ten days later, two dozen people associated with the wedding had tested positive for COVID-19 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Maine opened an investigation.
The officiant at the wedding, the Rev. Todd Bell of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, joined several members of his congregation. About 10 of his congregants also have tested positive for the virus.
Bell continued to hold services in Sanford and bristled over attacks aimed at him on social media. In one sermon, he urged people to put their trust in God over government and questioned the wisdom of masks, likening their effectiveness to a chain-link fence trying to keep out mosquitoes, CBS affiliate WGME reported.
An attorney for Bell said the church is encouraging congregants not to wear masks and face coverings are not required at the church’s school, Sanford Christian Academy, WGME reports.
On a video, which is no longer public on YouTube, he said he’s been “reviled” because of the wedding. The National Center for Life and Liberty, which represents the church, says Bell and his family have received death threats, Maine Public Radio reported.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, said thatnone of the seven people who died had actually attended the wedding.
Contact-tracers linked the wedding to several virus hotspots across the state — including more than 80 cases in a prison 230 miles (370 kilometers) away, where one of the guards had attended the ceremony.
Another 10 probable cases were found in a Baptist church in the same area, while 39 infections — and six of the deaths — were at a nursing home 100 miles from Millinocket.
Maine Governor Janet Mills on Thursday issued a warning to the 1.3 million residents of the state.
Such flare-ups “threaten to undo the gains we have made at the drop of a hat,” she said.
“COVID-19 is not on the other side of the fence, it is in our yards.”