An Independent Fundamental Baptist church in Jessamine County that resumed in-person services in mid-May, and whose pastor pressured the governor to reopen churches early, is now the site of a COVID-19 outbreak, local health officials said.
At least 17 congregants at Clays Mill Baptist Church, just over the Fayette County line in Nicholasville, have been diagnosed with the viral respiratory disease. Nine of the infected live in Jessamine County and eight live in Fayette County, public health officials in both places said this week. The ages of those with the virus range from children to the elderly.
Pastor Jeff Fugate, who’s led the church for nearly 30 years, said on Friday by phone that he felt “terrible” about the outbreak. “I care more about the health of my people than anyone,” he said.
In late April, Fugate joined Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who threatened to sue Gov. Andy Beshear if he didn’t rescind his executive order preventing churches from holding in-person services. Fugate testified that churches could meet in person safely.
At least two of the people who’ve tested positive are in Fugate’s family.
Over the last few weeks, he’s wondered what he could’ve done differently. But ultimately, Fugate said, “I don’t know of anything we could’ve done differently. I don’t. That’s why I just feel so bad.”
Unlike Clays Mill Baptist, many churches in Central Kentucky have decided to forgo gathering in person and continue with online-only services in May and June.
COVID-19 is an aggressively contagious virus that can spread even when people are stringent in their precautions. It has so far infected more than 10,700 people in Kentucky and killed at least 458.
It’s why Beshear and Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner for the Department of Public Health, have urged Kentuckians to err on the side of caution, especially when assembling with others, by taking steps like wearing masks and social distancing.
Dr. Stack has also warned churches of the potential dangers of shouting and singing around others, since those acts release a larger amount of virus particles into the air. A Washington state choir practice with at least one known infected person in mid-March resulted in 53 of the 61 participants catching the virus, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that Stack mentioned during a daily news conference in May.
“This is a serious disease, and it spreads very easily,” Stack said.
Fugate’s church still sang when they came back together. But instead of singing six or seven songs, lately they’ve been singing two or three, he said.
No Sunday school or child care services have been offered since the congregation returned on May 10, Fugate said on Friday. He said he has encouraged people not to shake hands and to wear masks, and his staff spread the rows of chairs out in the sanctuary in an attempt to keep people six feet apart.
The governor first asked that people stop going to church in early March, shortly after the state diagnosed its first case of the novel coronavirus, and for almost two months, most churches only met virtually.
Beshear’s initial reopening guidelines allowed houses of worship to meet again in person starting May 20, as long as they could do so safely. On May 8, two federal judges issued rulings that upheld a challenge to the governor’s moratorium on in-person services, meaning any church that wished to resume their services could do so immediately, about two weeks shy of when the state would allow it.
The governor, the following day, pleaded with churches not to gather in person before they’re able to take the necessary steps to keep safe anyone who might attend.
“What I’d ask is, people, take your time,” he said that Saturday. “You don’t want your house of worship to be a place where the coronavirus spreads.”
Fugate preached to pews filled with people for the first time that weekend, on May 10, when he allowed church staff and their families to sit in the sanctuary for his sermon for morning and evening services. He preached in-person services for the next two weeks — on May 13, 17, 20 and 24 — all of which were streamed live on Facebook.
Fugate, in a May 23 livestream, encouraged social distancing, but he didn’t mention the wearing of masks, though the state has recommended it. He said on Friday he’d previously recommended those attending wear masks.
His church also added an early morning service on Sundays aimed at adults without children and “seniors,” so as to keep the crowd smaller. About 100 people attended each of those early services in those two weeks, Fugate said, and closer to 200 attended the services later in the morning.
The gap between that early service and one closer to 11 a.m. “gives us an opportunity to sanitize [and] clean the building,” he said. Fugate also said he had encouraged his senior members to “stay home until they feel safe getting out.”
Positive cases had begun trickling during the second week of services, public health officials said. But between May 23 and May 27, enough people were diagnosed with the virus to move Fugate back to online-only services, which he did on May 27. In a letter drafted by Dr. Steve Davis, medical director of the Jessamine County Public Health Department, all congregants were urged to get tested.
Fugate told viewers, “we’ve had a number of folks who’ve been feeling poorly, several people to test positive [for COVID-19]. But the majority of folks test negative.”
At that time, Fugate said more of the congregants who tested positive had no symptoms.
That’s a trend Jessamine County Public Health Department Director Randy Gooch is seeing on a county-wide scale, he said.
Only about 1.5 percent of residents who’ve gotten tested at the county’s drive-thru sites are positive, Gooch said. But of that 1.5 percent, 67 percent have no virus symptoms. Overall, 66 residents have tested positive for the virus, and 13 cases are still active.
Fugate said he and his staff have decided to hold off on in-person services again until June 21, at which time the congregation will meet under a tent as part of what’s described on Facebook as a “huge tent revival.”