SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — A Sacramento church has become the epicenter of the county's outbreak of coronavirus cases after 71 of its members — including a senior pastor — tested positive for COVID-19, public health officials and church officials confirmed.
Bethany Slavic Missionary Church Senior Pastor Adam Bondaruk, along with two other unnamed pastors, were hospitalized because of COVID-19, said an unidentified pastor in a March 29 sermon posted on the church's website. The two other pastors were described as being "critically ill" by the unidentified pastor.
The pastor said Bondaruk told him that "he was not getting worse, but he was not getting better."
"We have many different people in our church, they are ill, so we need to pray. We need to intervene," the pastor said.
Sacramento County Health Director Dr. Peter Beilenson confirmed to ABC10 that the "mega-church," had the most amount of COVID-19 cases connected to it, compared to other congregations in the county.
Beilenson said on Wednesday that one-third of the county's 314 confirmed coronavirus cases have been linked to church gatherings. Of those 314 cases, 71 are connected to Bethany Slavic Missionary Church.
In a statement on the church's website, officials said "These reports are believed to be inaccurate and falsely place the emphasis on this church."
In response to the church's statement, Sacramento County spokesperson Janna Haynes said the numbers come from speaking with patients who have tested positive.
"Public Health officials have spoken with members of the church and community during their contact tracing investigations that revealed the links between all these cases," Haynes said.
But Beilenson said the problem hasn't been members congregating at the church, but rather at other people's homes.
"The reason that we're disclosing this is not to cause pariahs or to cast aspersions on anybody," Beilenson said. "But to really hammer home the importance of not congregating, not only at church, but also prayer gatherings at people's homes."
The church said it closed its doors on March 18 in order to comply with Gov. Gavin Newsom's stay at home order. Subsequent archival videos on the church's website show that the church has been holding service without members in the audience.
Two parishioners who were dropping off checks to the church told ABC10 through a translator that they were not told directly to stay at home with their families for prayer.
However, Bondaruk, the senior pastor who tested positive for the virus, told church members in a March 14 video posted online to "maintain social distancing as recommended by the CDC."
"The church did not condone any church related in-person gatherings outside the church," the church said in an online statement. "It disputes accusations that its members widely continued to gather as reported."
In order to slow the spread of the virus that has already infected more than one million people worldwide, there has to be a community effort in social distancing, a message Beilenson said he hoped "would've gotten out more" early on.
"I cannot reiterate enough how important it is... avoiding any non-essential travel and non-essential businesses, which unfortunately includes churches now," Beilenson told ABC10.
Beilenson said most churches, synagogues and mosques in the county have already made an effort to begin streaming sermons online
But not all churches have.
Sacramento's Rivers of Living Waters church has been holding weekly services inside of a small barn-sized building. The church has even published its services to YouTube, the most recent being five days ago.
In the video, Rivers of Living Waters Pastor Dan Ostring noted that the parishioners practiced social distancing but also called the reports of the virus "fear-mongering."
"Welcome to another Sunday civil disobedience act," said Ostring in video published to YouTube on Sunday. "We were told to stay home. Don't go to church. You might get sick. You might. I ain't never seen such fear mongering in my life."
In a Facebook message to ABC10 regarding the station's reporting on his church on Wednesday, Ostring said "Thank you for the hate mail."
"The joke's on you people only have 10 people come to my church and they all at least 10 feet apart from each other jokes on you (sic)," the pastor wrote.
Meanwhile, several parishioners at Faith Presbyterian Church on Florin Road were infected with coronavirus last month and two died. One of the members who died, a Sacramento substitute teacher, was one of the county's first COVID-19 related death.
Since the first death, Sacramento County has had eight others die, all of them either had underlying health conditions or were at least 65 years old.
Faith Presbyterian Pastor Jeff Chapman told ABC10 that his congregation should serve as a cautionary tale as to why churches should find different outlets to distribute sermons to churchgoers.
"The scriptures teach us, that people of faith are not immune to diseases, whether it be COVID-19 or cancer," Chapman said.
Brandon Rittiman contributed to this reporting.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with statements from Bethany Slavic Missionary Church officials that were sent out the day after ABC10's reporting on the church's members and pastors testing positive for coronavirus.
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