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Officiant of Maine wedding linked to 7 virus deaths says he's been "reviled"

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A rural church wedding and reception on a beautiful day in the shadow of Mount Katahdin was no doubt a happy day. But it has spread misery ever since.

That single event on Aug. 7 is linked to coronavirus outbreaks in at least two other locations in Maine, with more than 170 people contracting the virus and seven deaths since.

The officiant at the wedding, the Rev. Todd Bell of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, joined several members of his congregation. About 10 of his congregants also have tested positive for the virus. He declined to speak to The Associated Press.

Bell continued to hold services in Sanford and bristled over attacks aimed at him on social media. In one sermon, he urged people to put their trust in God over government and questioned the wisdom of masks, likening their effectiveness to a chain-link fence trying to keep out mosquitoes, CBS affiliate WGME reported.  

An attorney for Bell said the church is encouraging congregants not to wear masks and face coverings are not required at the church's school, Sanford Christian Academy, WGME reports.  

The station reports that Bell has dismissed commenters on social media who have criticized the pastor and members of his congregation for spreading the virus.

"Would you rather your pastor study the Bible this morning or read all 3,000 comments of negativity?" Bell  said. "You don't want the pastor who is being ruled by untrue comments. You want the pastor who's being ruled by Jesus Christ. So I've come to Christ — I encourage you to do the same."

On a video, which is no longer public on YouTube, he said he's been "reviled" because of the wedding. The National Center for Life and Liberty, which represents the church, says Bell and his family have received death threats, Maine Public Radio reported

Critics have questioned the wisdom of having such a large wedding and reception in the midst of a pandemic.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, said the single event has the power to undo much of the state's progress during the pandemic. The virus can become "the uninvited guest at every single wedding, party or event in Maine," he warned.

The "super spreader" event started with wedding attendees in the Katahdin region and spread to the community at large and to a nursing home in Madison. An attendee worked at the York County Jail, 220 miles away, where there are more than 70 cases. The state is also investigating an outbreak at a church in Sanford, home of the wedding's officiant.

None of those who died actually attended the wedding and reception. The first of the deaths was reported in Millinocket, where no one has tested positive for several weeks, the town manager said Wednesday. Six other deaths were residents of Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison.

The ramifications were swift.

Across the state, brides and grooms scrambled as event venues reassessed safety rules during the pandemic. The reception venue lost its business license, briefly, and hired a public relations firm. The pastor hired a law firm that specializes in religious liberty.

The outbreak changed the calculus of state health officials, who urged renewed vigilance in a state that had largely controlled the virus previously, Shah said.

"It is spreading in the community in and around York County with remarkable force," he said.

The epicenter was an unlikely place. Millinocket is a rural community that serves as gateway to North Woods made famous by Henry David Thoreau. Prior to the wedding, the community had no cases of the coronavirus.

It unfolded on a sunny day in August with a wedding at the Tri Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket and a reception at the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket, population 4,400.

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Eighty-seven coronavirus cases have been linked to a wedding at the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket, Maine. WABI

There were 65 guests at the Big Moose Inn -- violating the state's 50-person limit for indoor events -- and many attendees didn't wear masks or socially distance from each other, state officials said. Other guests not affiliated with the wedding brought the number to more than 100.

"Tragic is the word for things that we don't have any control over. In this case, we don't have control over the virus but this pastor absolutely had the choice whether to perform the wedding," said the Rev. Erika Hewitt, a Unitarian Universalist in Bath.

Already struggling, Maine's summer wedding industry tightened rules, forcing people to pare down guest lists, or cancel events altogether.

In Belfast, Thomas Roberts nearly blew a gasket when the Boathouse notified his daughter the venue might cancel her wedding.

"We have people already paid for travel arrangements, airline arrangements, rooms, and COVID-19 testing before traveling. Don't mess with my daughter's wedding less than a month before it," he said on social media.

His daughter, Amber, said she'd already reduced her guest list, and informed guests of Maine's quarantine and testing requirements. Her wedding is outdoors but she may have to drop more people from an indoor reception.

"I worry and stress out very easily," said the bride-to-be. "We're trying very hard to follow their guidelines so we can have a happy day."

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