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The pastor who officiated the Maine wedding that turned into a COVID-19 superspreader event linked to at least eight deaths will be required to wear a mask when he is at his son’s nuptials at a New Hampshire church later this month, a church official said.
Rev. Todd Bell, a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Maine, led the Aug. 7 wedding ceremony at a nearby church, and the 65 attendees were in violation of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on crowd size and its mask mandate. The ceremony, along with the subsequent reception at Big Moose Inn, has now been linked to at least 180 infections and eight deaths, primarily in people at a nearby nursing home who did not attend the wedding.
Bell has ignored social distancing practices and Maine’s mask mandate at his church and encouraged his congregation to trust God rather than the government. But during his son’s wedding, at the South Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he will have to wear a mask or be told to leave, church official Jennifer Leyden said.
“I hope Pastor Bell will wear a mask,” she 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.”
South Church is following COVID-19 safety precautions, Leyden said. There will be 50 people allowed in the 525-seater church, and it will be “an in-and-out” 20-minute service without a choir. Bell has declined to say if he is officiating the ceremony.
Leyden said that South is a “welcoming church,” but they will stick to the COVID-19 safety precautions.
“There are times when your religious beliefs can’t be in the forefront when there is a public health concern,” she said. “Because of that wedding in Maine, eight people have passed away. It probably could have been mitigated if everyone did what they were supposed to and keep safe.”
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Since officiating the Aug. 7 wedding, Bell and his family have received death threats, his lawyer, David Gibbs III, said. Gibbs said that his client is being unfairly targeted, and that Bell’s connection to the deaths “is maybe just a little bit exaggerated in the news.”
Big Moose Inn, the reception site, has apologized for their role in the event and said they made an "error in the interpretation" of the state's size restrictions, Laurie Cormier, the owner of the venue, said in a statement shared with PEOPLE. They had split the group into two rooms to remain under Maine's 50-person indoor limit, but later learned that it was against the rules. Their license was initially revoked, but has since been reinstated.
Within his congregation, the evangelical Baptist pastor has continued to rail against COVID-19 restrictions, and recently said during a service that “we’re not going to be ruled by fear,” according to an audio recording. “We’re going to be governed by faith. Can someone give me an amen?”
Bell has declined previous requests from PEOPLE for an interview.
Sanford city council member Maura Herlihy previously told PEOPLE that she’s “definitely concerned” about Bell’s refusal to require masks or encourage social distancing at his church.
“I don’t see what the harm is in wearing a mask, especially when health officials say it helps stop the spread,” she said. “For someone of faith … God has given us science and it is something we should use.”
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