Calvary Chapel of San Antonio has held multiple indoor, in-person services since it reopened in early May, right after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) let the state’s stay-at-home order expire. As hospitalizations and positivity rates surged in Texas over the past few weeks, members of the church began testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
The church has at least 50 cases of the novel coronavirus, lead pastor Ron Arbaugh told NBC-affiliate WOAI-TV on Saturday. Most of the positive cases are staff members ― including Arbaugh, his wife, at least one other main pastor, and children’s ministry staff. The majority of impacted individuals have reported mild symptoms, the pastor said.
The rise in cases prompted the church, based in Universal City on the border of San Antonio, to briefly suspend large in-person services.
Arbaugh and Calvary Chapel of San Antonio did not immediately return HuffPost’s request for comment.
Arbaugh told the San Antonio Express-News that coronavirus-related restrictions were stricter when his church first opened. But in mid-June, he started loosening those rules. Videos of the church’s services in May and June show worship leaders and some congregants singing without masks.
From a scientific perspective, houses of worship are different from locations like grocery stores and even restaurants because of what happens during services. Attendees of religious services are more comfortable being in close proximity to each other than they would be to strangers at a retail store. In addition, high-powered vocalizations ― such as what happens during loud talking or singing ― are particularly efficient in producing tiny, aerosolized respiratory droplets that can linger in the air inside buildings for some time. There have been several reports of the novel coronavirus spreading during singing events.
Arbaugh said that he regrets allowing congregants to hug each other and promised to implement stricter rules about social distancing before the church reopens next week.
“I accept full responsibility. I’m the leader of the church,” the pastor told WOAI-TV.
The church typically has three services every Sunday, as well as Bible studies on other days of the week. Its last large gathering occurred on June 21. Cases started popping up among congregants during that week, Arbaugh said in a June 24 sermon.
During a June 24 sermon in which he announced the “outbreak” to his parishioners, Arbaugh appeared to paint the rise in cases in his congregation as inevitable, saying that there was “really nothing that we could do to keep this from happening.”
“We need to expect, not get caught off guard, by the positive tests. That’s true nationwide, that’s true in our city, that’s true here at Calvary Chapel,” Arbaugh said. “The more people that get tested, the more positive results there will be. That just makes sense and that’s what we’ve been told to expect the whole time.”
The pastor’s statements echoed President Donald Trump’s argument that more testing will result in more positive cases. Health experts say this reasoning is flawed ― pointing out that the percentage of tests coming back positive is rising in some states.
By June 28, Arbaugh’s own COVID-19 test had come back positive and several others in the church had also been diagnosed. Arbaugh said he and his wife had minor symptoms. He told his congregation during an online service that the uptick was “bound to happen at some point,” since the congregation includes military and medical personnel.
At the same time, he also apologized for allowing people to hug at church.
“Forgive me for not being more careful. We all wanted to hug. I wanted to hug, that’s who we are,” Arbaugh said in the June 28 video. “I should have been more careful, I should have been more patient and I apologize for all of you who have tested positive. I’m sorry, please forgive me.”
Carol Schliesinger, a spokesperson for the City of San Antonio, declined to state whether health officials have officially traced a COVID-19 outbreak back to this specific church.
“We currently have widespread community transmission and every place/location that people have been in close quarters without practicing social distancing and use of face coverings is at risk for transmission/infection,” Schliesinger told HuffPost in an email.
Under the governor’s leadership, Texas initially pursued an aggressive reopening plan. It has had to backtrack as cases of the virus climbed up. Abbott issued an executive order last Thursday requiring face masks in public spaces in certain counties.
That order doesn’t apply to anyone “actively providing or obtaining access to religious worship,” although face coverings are strongly encouraged in those scenarios. Religious services are also exempted from the ban on gatherings over 100 people in Bexar County, where Calvary Chapel of San Antonio is located. Bexar County has the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Texas.
According to Calvary Chapel of San Antonio’s website, the church is planning to resume in-person worship on July 12 with only one live service, greater social distancing restrictions and a mask requirement.
“Read your Bibles and try not being consumed by the news or by the strange times we are living in. We will be fine; God’s grace is more than sufficient,” Arbaugh wrote in a message to his flock on Sunday. “We will return together as a church body to focus on the marvelous mission God has blessed us with.”