Church Service Exposed More Than 180 Worshipers To Coronavirus Patient, CA County Says

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May 18, 2020 3:35 p.m.
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A Mother’s Day church service held in violation of California’s coronavirus public health orders resulted in the exposure of over 180 people to the virus.

The Butte County Public Health Department first announced Friday that it had begun a contact tracing operation to respond to a religious service “where a person with lab-confirmed COVID-19 attended.” On Sunday, pastor Mike Jacobsen of Palermo Bible Family Church (PBFC) confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that PBFC held the service in question.

The COVID-19 carrier who attended the service did not receive a diagnosis until the day afterward, Butte County officials said. And Jacobsen claimed in a live-streamed sermon Sunday that the person was asymptomatic at the service and only began feeling sick the following day.

“They didn’t do it intentionally, they didn’t come to church intentionally,” Jacobsen said Sunday. “It was never my heart to put our church in harm’s way. That’s never been my desire.”

Public health officials sounded a slightly less sympathetic note.

“Despite the Governor’s order, the organization chose to open its doors, which resulted in exposing the entire congregation to COVID-19,” the health department said in a statement. “This decision comes at a cost of many hours and a financial burden to respond effectively to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19. Such decisions can place great risk on the County’s ability to continue opening at a faster rate than the State.”

Jacobsen did not respond to TPM’s request for comment. He said during the livestream that he had been contacted by the sheriff’s office following the service. Jacobsen also said that two church members had been in the hospital in Sacramento, but he did not describe their condition or say whether their hospitalizations were related to coronavirus.

Acknowledging the exposure during the livestream Sunday, the pastor said he understood that others believed the in-person service was a mistake, but said he disagreed.

“I didn’t feel like the decision we made was irresponsible, and can I tell you, we still don’t,” Jacobsen said.

Earlier, he compared the decision to Peter’s decision to follow Jesus’ command and walk on water at the Sea of Galilee.

“Some have said, ‘That wasn’t using good common sense,'” Jacobsen said, referring to his decision to hold a Mother’s Day service.

“I might ask you, was it common sense for Peter to step out of the boat onto the stormy seas of Galilee to go toward Jesus? No, there was no common sense in that. Faith has nothing to do with making sense.”

“I want to be like Peter,” the pastor said later in the service. “I want to leave what makes sense — the comfortable boat that everybody else is in. If I have to step out in front, I want to do so. I want lead with a passion because my heart is in the right place. My desires for the people of God and those who do not yet know God is in the right place. I want to be one that wins the harvest for Jesus Christ.”

Butte County’s public health department did not respond to TPM’s request for comment. But it said in its statement Friday that it was working to establish testing for everyone who attended the service.

“Individuals attending the service have been notified of their exposure and instructed by BCPH to self-quarantine,” the department said. “Information about how to
monitor themselves for symptoms, how to contact BCPH and what to do if they become symptomatic has been provided.”

In a live-streamed Bible study last week, Jacobsen compared depriving in-person worship as akin to taking “an infant out of the arms of its mother,” the Times noted. During Sunday’s service, he used a similar analogy.

“It would be like me going to somebody else that has children and saying to them, ‘You know, I can tell you how to raise your kids better than you can.’ But I can’t, because those children belong to somebody else.”

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