Charlotte church banned from holding in-person events after COVID-19 outbreak

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A weeklong convocation at the United House of Prayer for All People drew more than a thousand people, but health officials said it created a massive COVID-19 cluster and has led to the deaths of at least five people.

Now, Mecklenburg County leaders have issued an order barring the church from holding in-person gatherings for the next two weeks.

Health officials said they have tied at least 146 cases across four counties to the event -- 140 cases in Mecklenburg County, four cases in Iredell County, one case in Gaston County and one in Cabarrus County. Of those cases, five people have died and another death is under investigation.

They also said at least seven people have been hospitalized and several of those are on ventilators.

Health officials said Monday that a cluster at assisted living facility, Madison Saints Paradise South Senior Living, that is connected to the positive cases has grown from 14 to 19 cases.

In addition, there are two cases at White Oak Manors Senior Living.

The health department has attempted to contact at least 192 close contacts of confirmed cases, according to officials.

>> Channel 9′s Mark Becker looked into why the facility is not required to report a COVID-19 outbreak to the state. Watch his report below.

Health officials said this is the largest outbreak tied to any event in Mecklenburg County since the pandemic began.

On Saturday, the Mecklenburg County Health Department issued what they call an “Abatement of Imminent Hazard” to the United House of Prayer for All People due to the outbreak.

Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said this is a tool the department can use to prevent the church from opening and allowing further gathering.

“We have taken this action out of an abundance of caution to prevent the COVID-19 virus from further spreading in our community,” Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said. “This type of order is rare, but sometimes necessary.”

An “imminent hazard” is defined as a situation that could cause an “immediate threat to human life, an immediate threat of serious physical injury, an immediate threat of serious adverse health effects or a serious rick of irreparable damage to the environment if no immediate action is taken.”

Mecklenburg County leaders said so far, church leaders have not been accepting of help from the health department and has not been willing to put off future events.

County Commissioner Vilma Leake, D-District 2, said Tuesday church leaders are planning to respond.

“I am grateful they have that trust in me and confidence in me that I have not just run in on this occasion but have been a part of the visitation and worshipping there over the years,” Leake said.

Leake clarified she is not a member at the church but frequently attends their services and events.

She has been urging people who went to the events to get tested.

“They have my support, and I have repeatedly said to people to get tested,” Leake said. “That has been my philosophy and my concern that people get the kind of care that is necessary for longevity and pureness of mind.”

Meanwhile, county health officials were alarmed after videos were posted on social media over the weekend at Nikko Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar in South End.

A large crowd gathered there, as well, with very little social distancing and few masks.

>>Read more about the health department’s response to Nikko here

After the church announced it still planned to hold large events such as its “Worldwind Revival” event from Oct. 25 through Oct. 31, health officials said that’s when they determined the need for the order.

“The opportunity for it to continue to spread exists in this environment and is of grave concern to us,” Harris said.

According to the order, all the church facilities in Mecklenburg County will be closed immediately to in-person gatherings and will not hold any gatherings of 10 or more people.

All in-person gathers at United House of Prayer facilities are canceled until at least Nov. 6, according to the order. The church is also required to take steps to clean and disinfect indoor surfaces.

If church officials do not comply with the order, the county can take them to court.

“I do not take this authority lightly,” Harris said. “I have been in public health for over 30 years and this is the third abatement I’ve issued."

Kenneth Robinson with the Concerned Clergy of Charlotte told Channel 9 that he understands the reason for the order. He said he supports mask wearing and social distancing but he also wants to make sure the rights of the church are considered in this situation moving forward.

“It’s a very fine line between safety and religious freedom,” he said.

Community reacts to COVID-19 outbreak connected to weeklong event at Charlotte church

One woman, who did not want to be identified because she works in a hospital, said she lives near one of the church locations. She said she sees this in the hospital and it makes her angry.

“I see this in the hospital everyday, it’s no fun. These people are suffering,” the woman said. “It makes me mad because everybody else is complying with the rules.”

Tony Weathers owns a barbershop across the street from the church on Beatties Ford Road. He said he almost stopped by the convocation events himself. And while he didn’t attend the events, he knows several others, including family, who did.

“That’s what’s worrying me because I did cut a couple of their hair,” he said. “The fact is I don’t know if they had it, or if they’ve got it, or if they were in contact with somebody that may have it.”

Health officials believe there may have been more than 1,000 people at the convocation events that took place between Oct. 4 and 11 -- many of them came from other states like New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Georgia.

Church members arrived in their vehicles Sunday to leave donations. They were not violating the order, because there were 10 people or fewer who gathered at a time.

There were no calls, arrests or citations issued, health officials said.

On Thursday, the Mecklenburg County Health Department set up a mobile testing site at their location on Beatties Ford Road where dozens of people connected to the event lined up to be tested.

Catherine Williams told Channel 9 that her mother-in-law attended the convocation events and passed away before she could be tested.

“We really don’t know what my mother-in-law passed from, but she was supposed to have got tested on Tuesday, but we couldn’t get her on the phone" Williams said.

Williams said her family is waiting to find out if COVID-19 was the cause of death.

In the meantime, she said another family member who also attended those events is in the hospital.

“My mother in law’s sister -- she’s in the hospital. At first they diagnosed her with pneumonia, now they’re saying she has COVID-19. All of them was at the event," Williams said.

Williams said she got tested because she wants to protect herself.

“I had a bone marrow transplant in 2018 and so my immune system is still developing,” Williams said. "I’m in remission but I still want to be protected it’s more safe than being sorry.”

Officials said 127 people were tested at the event on Thursday and the health department held a second event Friday.