A Maine pastor who presided over a wedding-turned-superspreader event that has been linked to at least eight Covid-19 deaths and over a hundred more infections will be taking part in another wedding next month — his son’s.
The Rev. Todd Bell’s son is tying the knot on Oct. 17 across the state line at the South Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the church confirmed.
And if Bell refuses to wear a mask at this ceremony, he could get the boot.
“I hope Pastor Bell will wear a mask,” church official Jennifer Leyden told The Maine Monitor. “To ask another person of faith to leave is an incredibly hard thing. But unfortunately, I have to be a hard-ass. If you’re not wearing a mask, you’re not coming in.”
The South Church is taking the kind of Covid-19 safety precautions that Todd has railed against repeatedly in sermons he’s delivered at his evangelical church, the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Maine.
A “family minister” who Leyden did not identify will perform the ceremony and just 50 people are expected to attend the 20-minute wedding in a historic sanctuary designed to hold 525 people.
It will be “an in-and-out service” without a choir, Leyden added.
The reception is later that day at The Hall at Great Falls in the nearby town of Somersworth, New Hampshire.
“I would be more worried about the reception than I would sitting in a church with a mask on for 15, 20 minutes,” Leyden said.
After an inquiry from NBC News, the church released a further statement Wednesday stating that the church is taking extra-precautions for the Bell wedding and that the families are cooperating.
“The rental party is receptive and cooperative about the Church’s efforts to safeguard the safety and well-being of their wedding party and guests on this very special day in their lives,” it said.
Bell, who could not be reached for comment, began taking flack after he officiated a wedding on Aug. 7 at the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket, Maine, after which, 10 of his congregants, including his father, tested positive for Covid-19.
It quickly spread throughout the state, with 180 more people getting infected including several inmates at the York County Jail. Most of the eight who died were elderly residents at a retirement and rehabilitation center in Madison, Maine.
Vilified online and on social media, Todd claimed he and his family were getting death threats.
But even as the Maine office of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the Covid-19 cases to the wedding, a defiant Bell continued to hold services where there appeared to be little or no social distancing and urge his flock to trust God over the government.
And although he’s not a doctor, Bell said in a sermon that wearing a mask to stop the spread of Covid-19 is “kind of like trying to keep a mosquito out of chain-link fence.”
Bell has also continued to defy Maine’s virus regulations even though he is based in York County, which is a coronavirus hot spot with 44 percent of the state’s new cases.
Since the start of the pandemic, Maine has reported 141 deaths and 5,337 infections, according to the latest NBC News figures.
While the Sanford City Council has voted to fine residents $100 for not wearing masks, Bell has refused to enforce the rules and there’s nothing the city can do because he operates a church and a private school, the Sanford Christian Academy.
“There’s really no good conversation with him right now,” Sanford City Councilor Maura Herlihy said of Bell in an interview with local media. “He wants to do what he wants on his pulpit, and he’s chosen his line in the sand.”
Bell is not the only religious leader locked in a church-versus-state conflict over how to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Several churches in other states have filed lawsuits claiming that government-imposed restrictions aimed at preventing people from getting sick were violations of religious liberty.
Among the best known examples are the Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, which has been holding services for weeks in defiance of state and local limits on indoor gatherings.
And there is The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida, whose minister was arrested in March for defying Hillsborough County’s ban on mass gatherings during a pandemic.
With the presidential election a little over a month away, President Donald Trump is still struggling to stop the spread of a virus that, as of Wednesday morning, had claimed 207,265 lives in the U.S. and infected more than 7.2 million people, the NBC News figures showed.
While Trump continues to claim success in battling the pandemic, the U.S. now accounts for over a fifth of the world’s more than one million Covid-19 deaths and over a fifth of the world’s 33.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 dashboard.