3 more deaths, 5 cases tied to COVID-19 outbreak at Charlotte church, officials say

CHARLOTTE — Officials have tied a total of 12 deaths to a COVID-19 outbreak at a Charlotte church last month. There are also five new positive cases that have been reported.

Mecklenburg County officials confirmed Thursday that there have been three more COVID-19 related deaths tied to a weeklong convocation at the United House of Prayer for All People.

The positive cases connected to the events resulted in Mecklenburg County’s largest COVID-19 outbreak.

The church was allowed to reopen on Oct. 30 after being shut down to help stop community spread.

Church leaders announced that it had reached an agreement with the Mecklenburg County Health Department to reopen all eleven of its locations in the county. The agreement went into effect immediately.

“This is a great result for the United House of Prayer and for religious freedom and expression throughout Mecklenburg County,” Apostle Ronnie White said.

The churches had previously been ordered to remain closed until Nov. 5 through an order of abatement issued by the county.

Hours before the announcement, County Manager Dena Diorio and the legal counsel for the United House of Prayer for All People had approved an agreement that, after certain steps are taken, the county’s order to bar the church from holding in-person gatherings for two weeks would be modified.

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

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Previously released data: Health officials said the church event on Beatties Ford Road was tied to at least 213 positive cases, including 11 deaths, in four counties:

  • 203 in Mecklenburg County
  • 4 in Iredell County
  • 5 case in Gaston County
  • 1 case in Cabarrus County

At least 12 people have been hospitalized, including some who were put on ventilators.

Health officials also said that a cluster at an assisted living facility, Madison Saints Paradise South Senior Living, which is connected to the positive cases, had grown from 14 to 19 cases. In addition, there are two cases at White Oak Manors Senior Living.

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Reporter DaShawn Brown spoke with a former church member earlier this month about the outbreak.

“That’s not them,” the member said. “That’s not the House of Prayer that I grew up in.”

The former member said he was shocked by the fallout.

“This bishop, this time, is setting this example, and I feel this example, it’s a bad look for them,” he said.

The Mecklenburg County Health Department issued an “Abatement of Imminent Hazard” to the United House of Prayer last month due to the outbreak. Later, the county had issued an amended and modified order before the church announced they had reached a new agreement, allowing the churches to open immediately.

UHP said the closures were hard on members who are used to participating in religious services daily.

“The closure took place during a week when Revival services --- an especially important time for Church members --- were scheduled,” the church said in a statement.

“Not being able to attend services and join with the community in the worship of the Lord was distressing to our members, especially in these difficult times,” said Apostle White, who has been pastor at the Beatties Ford Road location for six years, and a pastor with the church for 36 years. “Daily services are fundamental to our beliefs, and this result preserves our right to worship God together as a community in the manner that is sacred and meaningful to us.”

UPH’s legal counsel Joshua D. Davey said the county’s decision to close all eleven churches instead of just the Beatties Ford location was a step too far.

“The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article 1, section 13 of the North Carolina Constitution, guarantee the right to free exercise of religion to all,” Davey he said. "The County can take measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, but those actions cannot be overboard and the County cannot substantially shut down an entire religious denomination, as the Abatement Order did here.

In an email chain obtained by Channel 9 dated Oct. 28, Diorio outlined what the church needed to do to make modifications to congregating.

The first step was for church leaders is to encourage:

  • Complying with all prevention measures implemented by the church
  • Staying home if members do not feel well
  • Getting a COVID-19 test if they are experiencing symptoms or have been in close contact with a confirmed case
  • Fully cooperating with Public Health case investigators and contact tracers

The second step included site visits to each church location by public health staff to review prevention and safety measures, and to create guidelines on capacity based on each facility. That would include measures to have signage, face coverings, social distancing and disinfecting methods.

In regards to the previous orders, Diorio said the county believed the settlement avoided potential litigation, addressed concerns regarding the recent outbreak and avoided further infection.

In response, County Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell said she was concerned about the agreement.

“Are we caving on our public health standards and responsibilities to avoid litigation?” Rodriguez-McDowell replied the next day, “With five deaths already connected to this location and more than 150 confirmed infections, I just want to weigh in as being uncomfortable with this as a solution.”

Diorio replied that they would not give in for fear of litigation.

“The church initially did not cooperate with county officials at the beginning of the outbreak," Diorio said. "If church officials did communicate with the county, there would not have been an order issued. The lack of cooperation was what forced officials to take that step, and now the county has the church’s attention.”

Diorio added, “Our primary objective and priority (have) always been the health and safety of the public, not taking punitive action against any entity. If we have assurance and comfort that the House of Prayer can operate safely and be a good partner with the Health Department, we have achieved our goals.”

It’s unclear what caused the county to reverse course and allow the church to reopen before the two week period, but in Oct. 30’s announcement, the church said it worked closely with officials over the past week to address their concerns about the COVID-19 safety measures the church had in place.

“We would like to thank the inspectors and staff from the County for the advice they’ve given us with regard to our churches and facilities,” White said. “We very much appreciate the efforts and cooperation of Director Harris and everyone from the Department of Public Health, and we are pleased that this situation was resolved amicably.”

White said that the churches would have no difficulty following the advice provided by the county because “many, if not all of the recommended measures had already been in place in the United House of Prayer’s churches in Mecklenburg County and throughout the country."

According to UHP, its churches had conducted worship services safely prior to the convocation, requiring members to wear masks and social distance. The church said it also made hand sanitizer readily available and regularly cleaned and sanitized its building.

The church said those same precautions and more were taken during the weeklong event, which drew a crowd of more more than 1,000 people -- many from other states like New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Georgia.