California churchgoer tests positive day after service violating coronavirus order; 180 exposed

A congregant tested positive for the coronavirus the day after attending a Mother's Day service at Palermo Bible Family Church.
Palermo Bible Family Church
Palermo Bible Family Church, about 70 miles north of Sacramento, California.Google Maps

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

A congregant who attended a California church on Mother's Day for a service that was against state orders tested positive for coronavirus the next day, possibly exposing 180 other churchgoers.

Mike Jacobsen, a pastor at Palermo Bible Family Church, about 70 miles north of Sacramento, said in a Facebook post on Friday that a congregant fell ill the day after attending the May 10 service.

“For 7 weeks we have been kept out of our church and away from our church family,” Jacobsen wrote in the post, according to The Los Angeles Times. “I am fully aware that some people may not understand that for our church it is essential to be together in fellowship.”

The post has since been deleted, but Jacobsen on Wednesday addressed his decision to hold an in-person service during a virtual Bible study, saying it is important for new congregants and believers to receive in-person support.

In a statement, Butte County Public Health said it was working to perform testing and contact tracing for all 180 people who were at the service. They have all been notified of their exposure to the virus and instructed to self-quarantine.

“At this time, organizations that hold in-person services or gatherings are putting the health and safety of their congregations, the general public and our local ability to open up at great risk,” Danette York, the director of Butte County Public Health, said in the statement. "Moving too quickly through the reopening process can cause a major setback and could require us to revert back to more restrictive measures."

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay at home order for the state on March 19. It is still in effect as counties move through stages of reopening. Butte is in stage 2, which still does not permit gatherings.

"Despite the governor’s order, the organization chose to open its doors, which resulted in exposing the entire congregation to COVID-19," the disease associated with coronavirus, the Butte County Public Health statement said. "This decision comes at a cost of many hours and financial burden to respond effectively to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19."

During a virtual Sunday service through the church's Facebook page, Jacobson further addressed his decision.

"It was never in my heart to put our church in harm's way. That’s never been my desire," Jacobsen said. "I understand when people may not understand what motivates us and what prompts us. And I would love to say I have the market on discernment and I always get it right, but because I’m human, I make mistakes."

Jacobsen added that he hoped some who were critical of the church had tuned in to Sunday's service. He said it was his "greatest heart's desire ... that somehow in the midst of what has happened that God turned it around and you found Christ in the process. In the process of trying to find fault, God opened up your eyes to the truth of how good God is."