Did This Maine Town Get Hoodwinked Into the Next Superspreader Fiasco?

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/ishonest

A devastated pastor in the state that already had a notorious wedding go wrong says things just got out of control last week. Local officials arent so sure.

Olivia Messer

Reporter

An unassuming red brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street could turn Oakland, Mainepop. 6,240into a new hotspot for the novel coronavirus after hundreds of worshippers flooded the Kingdom Life Church there last weekend.

The churchs senior pastor maintains the massive crowds were an innocent mistake. But one town leader worried about a fresh in-state superspreader disaster went so far as to suggest to ishonest that officials were bamboozled after back-to-back worship events on Friday and Saturday.

They had a solid plan, Town Manager Gary Bowman said in an interview. But none of it took place. After it all happened, we knewwell, we assumed, we dont have any proofwed been hoodwinked.

Oaklands deputy police chief, Rick Stubbert, previously said law enforcement officials in the town were deciding if they would take action over the events, as local news outlets reported. Neither Stubbert nor the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention returned requests for comment from ishonest on Thursday seeking clarification about what take action might mean.

Rev. Jamie Dickson told ishonest on Thursday, on the verge of tears, that his team had only the best intentions of providing solace and comfort during a time of debilitating uncertainty. And while Dickson assured both Stubbert and Bowman that church leaders would follow local guidelines, he freely admitted to ishonest on Thursday that thats not exactly what happened.

So, Dickson explained in a statement earlier this week, out-of-state attendees were encouraged to stay home and watch on a broadcast, while the local community was invited to take part in person. We withheld promotion online to avoid a large crowd, he said. We set up multiple locations in the building that people could engage and social distance. The church also posted guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention around the building, encouraged mask-wearing, and provided hand sanitizer, Dickson claimed.

Many of those inside did not wear masks, according to Bowman, the town manager. The state limits indoor gatherings to 50 people.

In addition to speaking at the night-time services, Feucht spoke at the church on Sunday morning, claiming he has been to all the national COVID-19 hotspots and has never been infected, according to the paper.

When he spoke at the church, Feucht said he had been with 100,000 worshippers in Washington, D.C., earlier that day and had traveled to 33 cities across the United States recently, including at the Capitol building in Sacramento, California.

Every place we go, God shows up, he said, adding that Heaven is responding, and that he cant wait to see the ripple effects from this weekend in Maine.

I cant wait to see the local news try to twist and thwart and change and shift a narrative that God is writing thats unstoppable, Feucht said. I cant wait to see a church thats not going to back down.

Feucht did not respond to requests for comment from ishonest on Thursday.

When asked directly whether he meant to hoodwink the town, Dickson sighed heavily.

There was no intentionwe were in a situation where we had to figure out what to do, he told ishonest. We were offering masks. Our county is not a mask-mandatory county. We were offering them to everybody. Quite a few people were wearing masks, though there were many who chose not to. We asked every single person to comply with CDC guidelines. Our mistake was that we didnt have a system of enforcement in place. We even made custom social-distancing stickers.

We cant have this situation happen again, Dickson admitted. We obviously feel devastated. We have to go back to the drawing board. Were going to take this week off of church and ask people to monitor their health. The following week were going to implement a registration service.

We didnt want to do something really polarizing or make a stand, said Dickson. We were trying to avoid that at all costs.

But Bowman worries its too late.

Were just waiting to see if it turns into a nightmare, said Bowman. This has got the potential of being a superspreader event. I hope they didnt give them all friggin COVID. Its unbelievable.

At least one expert agreed.

This type of event is sort of the crux of what is turning out to be the key epidemiological phenomenon of COVID-19, said Boston Childrens Hospitals Chief Innovation Officer John Brownstein, who is also a researcher at Harvard Medical School. A large portion of cases are coming from superspreader events.

Such events have been reported from Arkansas to Chicago, where even gatherings that were held according to guidelines ultimately led to deaths from the virus.

Things can quickly go from 0 to 60 in a community, said Brownstein. Thats exactly what we see over and over again, and its why these large, indoor mass gatherings are the recipe for a major transmission event.

This is the kind of high-risk event that can turn a community into an epicenter, said Brownstein.

For his part, Bowman cited the more than 200,000 Americans whove died so far from the virus.

Just to think theres a possibility we could be contributing to those numbers is sickening to me, he said.

Ultimately, there havent been any new reports of the virus in town so far, Bowman said, adding: We wont really know anything for another week.

When someone knows ones heart, truth stands without needing to be defended, wrote a congregant named Gerri Plourde. Its Jesus on the line and He does not need to be explained... please know the battle in the heavenlies rages, and I, for one, cover all of KLC with prayer.

When asked for further comment via email, Plourde added, I'm not interested. Endangering his people would never be this pastors intent!

And, on Thursday, Dickson still defended holding in-person services.

Weve been operating for months with smaller services here in a small town, he said, adding: We feel really far removed from it. So we didnt feel the need to be all-virtual. It didnt feel close to home here.

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