On Sunday morning, at San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church, hundreds of maskless worshipers sang and prayed, swaying together on the benches, babies and grandparents nearby.
It might have been easy to forget that a deadly pandemic was raging across the country.
That is, until about 25 minutes into the sermon, when Pastor Matt Hagee, on a stage bathed in blue light, announced that his father, the 80-year-old senior pastor and founder of the church, John Hagee, had been diagnosed two days ago. earlier with COVID-19. Hagee said on the Oct. 4 live broadcast that his father “has been diligent throughout this COVID pandemic to monitor his health.”
“It was one, discovered early on, and two, his medical team is watching him, and three, he feels good enough to be frustrated with anyone in a white coat with a stethoscope,” Hagee said. “He covets your prayers and asks you to pray for him daily.”
“As it is a reality in our lives, we also have a promise to serve a God who is a healer,” Hagee added, addressing the massive crowd.
Hagee’s diagnosis made waves locally, with many San Antonio residents saying on social media that they were – at the very least – not surprised by the news, given the few masks seen at the church. It was not clear on Monday when the senior pastor was last seen at the church himself, although he has been giving sermons in recent weeks, including one on September 13 in which he urged the faithful to vote with the Bible in mind.
But Hagee is perhaps best known outside evangelical circles for his long history of extravagant statements and, more recently, his skepticism about stopping coronaviruses.
Current restrictions from Bexar County to San Antonio require anyone over the age of 10 to wear a mask inside any business or business entity “wherever it is not possible to maintain six feet of social distancing.” . Even outdoor gatherings over 10 people are prohibited.
The two rules exclude churches, thanks to an order from Gov. Greg Abbott, who has been repeatedly criticized for delaying in adopting the coronavirus restrictions. In some cases, Abbott has been accused of actively working against local politicians to prevent what several cities have said are necessary guarantees.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told The Daily Beast on Monday that he felt the Texas places of worship exception was “a big mistake” and “just not smart,” especially when facilities like Cornerstone Church have hundreds of unmasked people nearby. proximity.
“We have several large churches here in town, but I think most pastors are very careful,” Wolff said, calling it “unfortunate” that Cornerstone services seem to show very few people are following recommended protocols. The Daily Beast’s requests for comment were not returned by Cornerstone Church officials on Monday.
The mega-church has more than 22,000 members, according to The San Antonio Express-News. Hagee, who met Vice President Pence at the White House in 2017 and is said to have met the president while he visited the Oval Office, famously called the marriage equality “two disturbed people playing at home” and called referred to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as “God’s judgment against the city of New Orleans” because the city’s “level of sin” was “offensive to God”.
Hagee also called the Catholic Church a “false system of worship.”
In July, Hagee and his ministry – along with four parents from the Cornerstone Christian Schools – actually sued San Antonio and Bexar County officials, including Wolff, in an attempt to force schools to start. face-to-face teaching before Labor Day.
According to Express news, the lawsuit argued that the order to postpone in-person classes “unconstitutionally infringes the religious freedoms of private religious schools.” The problem was solved when Governor Greg Abbott announced that local health agencies did not have the power to close classrooms.
Wolff said after extensive discussions with Abbott over local warrants, public health officials and judges were tied when it comes to churches.
“We encourage them and give them health advice, but of course they don’t have to follow it,” he told the Daily Beast. “Churches are prohibited.”
As large-scale events in churches in Arkansas, Illinois, and Maine have shown in recent months, churches are not somehow immune from the spread of the virus to the hundreds – and even the deaths of people who did not attend services.
“I can’t think of a riskier environment than being indoors, cluttered and without a mask,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at the ‘Georgetown University. “The fact that people are singing and screaming further amplifies the risk. It’s a super-spreader that’s even waiting to arrive. In fact, it is almost certain to quickly spread the virus to worshipers, their families and the entire community.
Any other organization or business that breaks the rules of the region may be subject to fines and other citations. But local authorities lack the capacity to enforce masks, distancing, or capacity in churches.
“We do contact tracing and tracing, but it’s extremely difficult to know where someone got it,” Judge Wolff added. “Our numbers look good now, but we’ve been here before. When you hear that the president got it and Hagee got it, I’m not sure.
What does it mean for public health when a congregation of hundreds if not thousands of people follow religious leaders who refuse to wear a mask and then fall ill? According to Gostin, “it’s a complete disaster.”
As of Monday afternoon, Bexar County – population 1,925,865 – had 494 new overnight coronavirus cases and a cumulative total of 58,678 cases. There had been 1,332 deaths from COVID-19 in the county since the start of the year, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. At the height of the county, 1,267 people were hospitalized with the virus in July, which severely strained the city’s capacity.
On Monday, that number was much lower, at 200, according to Judge Wolff.
But John Hernandez, a 31-year-old San Antonio-based sales and service manager, said that while the numbers looked better than several months ago – and it was not clear when the oldest Hagee was last in Cornerstone Church. crowd – his infection was of concern.
“I’m afraid we’re going back to our peak of thousands of new cases a day, especially with some of the mega-churches we have here,” he told The Daily Beast. “No mask, just a ‘God will protect me’ attitude.”
“Too many people let their guard down,” Hernandez added, explaining that his aunt and uncle died within days of COVID-19. “I don’t wish this virus on anyone.”
“I am all for religious freedom,” Hernandez continued. “It is one of the cornerstones of this country. But putting people’s lives in danger because you want to organize a service… is not like God and is not like Christ.
In the end, Wolff said, although hundreds of cases resulted from such gatherings, whether at this place of worship or another, “There is nothing we can do for the church.
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