• A church in Cleveland, Tennessee, was the site of at least a dozen coronavirus cases in June.
  • Members practiced social distancing and had their temperatures taken before entering, but they were not required to wear masks.
  • The lead pastor, Kevin Page, said that, in hindsight, he should have emphasized mask-wearing during services.
  • The CDC has warned that large indoor gatherings, including church events, could be coronavirus superspreading hot spots.
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Pastors at the Westmore Church of God thought they'd done everything right when they opened back up for in-person worship.

The Cleveland, Tennessee-based church reopened on May 31 and held services for weeks without a hitch. Congregants maintained social distance, temperatures were checked, and church leaders even designated separate areasfor members at high-risk of severe coronavirus infection.

But on June 22, the church's luck ran out.

That day, Westmore hosted a regional worship service for the Tennessee Church of God state office, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The three-hour event involved several hundred people.

Over the next few days, Kevin Page, the lead pastor, announced that at least a dozen of his congregants — including himself and his mother-in-law — had tested positive for COVID-19.

Two weeks later, Page went on radio station 104.1 WCLE. His message: He wished he'd pushed harder for all churchgoers to wear masks.

"The thing that I would have done differently is really stress that," he told the radio station.

'We were not being casual'

Page said that since reopening, the Westmore Church of God had been taking safety seriously. 

"People were able to walk from their car to a seat without even having to touch a door. We didn't pass offering pouches," he said. "We were not being casual."

The church "encouraged masks," but not all congregants wore them, he said. Page said he and his fellow pastors "didn't drive that home."

He said he thinks the spread might have happened within the church's music ministry, but he can't be sure.

"It's nobody's fault. In fact that morning, as we did every week, temperatures were taken before choir members would go to the stage, and somehow it slipped in on us," he told 104.1 WCLE. "I have to take responsibility for that."

In hindsight, Page told the radio station, he wishes mask-wearing had been emphasized more.

"We had strong standards in place, but we didn't take that serious enough to say, 'OK, let's elevate this to really say that a mask is something you've really got to take seriously.'"

The church switched to online-only services on June 26, which Page said will continue through at least July 19.

In the meantime, he said, the church has bought thousands of masks, which he thinks will "be a real key" in restarting in-person services.

A growing body of research shows masks prevent transmission

Research has coalesced around the idea that masks prevent the coronavirus from jumping between people. That's because the coronavirus primarily spreads via droplets that fly through the air when an infected person coughs, talks, or sneezes.

A recent analysis of coronavirus outbreaks in 42 countries found that countries where mask wearing was common, like China and Japan, saw more modest outbreaks compared to nations that weren't accustomed to the practice.

"We believe broader mask use is key to control the pandemic," the researchers wrote.

Similarly, findings from Arizona State University showed that "broad adoption of even relatively ineffective face masks may meaningfully reduce community transmission of COVID-19."

A model from the University of Washington predicts that universal mask-wearing in the US could prevent about 45,000 coronavirus deaths by November 1.

Why churches are superspreading hot spots

Houses of worship, in particular, can serve as breeding grounds for coronavirus outbreaks, since the risk of coronavirus transmission is higher indoors, in poorly ventilated spaces where lots of people come into close, sustained proximity. Studies have also linked talking loudly and vigorous singing with increased risk of coronavirus transmission.

The Westmore Church of God's experience isn't unusual. A handful of other US churches have been connected with superspreader events too: instances in which one person infects an atypically large number of others.

A 57-year-old Arkansas pastor and his wife attended church events and a Bible study group a few days before they developed symptoms of COVID-19 in early March. Of the 92 people they came into contact with at the church, 35 got sick. Seven were hospitalized, and three died.

Contact tracers from the Arkansas Department of Health then discovered 26 more cases among people who reported having contact with the infected churchgoers, along with one additional death.

Three months later, a small church in northeastern Oregon was linked to the state's largest coronavirus outbreak to date.

Oregon health authorities said that more than 230 cases were tied to an outbreak at the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Union County, which held services in April and May in defiance of the state's stay-at-home order.

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers "group gatherings during church events" to be a potential source of widespread coronavirus transmission.

Aria Bendix contributed reporting to this story.

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