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After Philly’s first church-linked COVID-19 outbreak, pastors urge prayers for the sick

The small church is part of a nationwide pandemic trend as some houses of worship re-open for in-person services -- and see COVID cases spread among congregants.

The CityReach Church Philly on the 6800 block of Torresdale Ave., in the Tacony neighborhood on Thursday, August 20, 2020.  At least 12 members of the church have been infected by the COVID-19 virus.
The CityReach Church Philly on the 6800 block of Torresdale Ave., in the Tacony neighborhood on Thursday, August 20, 2020. At least 12 members of the church have been infected by the COVID-19 virus.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

In the first outbreak of COVID-19 traced to a place of worship in Philadelphia, a dozen congregants at a church in the Northeast have tested positive for the virus, the city’s health department said Thursday.

After restricting services to online-only since March, CityReach Philly in Tacony resumed in-person worship in July. Within less than a month, a church member began exhibiting symptoms, health officials said.

Soon after that early August diagnosis, contact tracers from the health department noticed a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests in the church’s zip code, and eventually traced the outbreak to CityReach. Besides the 12 congregants who have contracted the virus, 14 people have been identified as having come into contact with them. The 12 live in seven households.

CityReach halted in-person services again on Aug. 13, Senior Pastor Mark Novalés said in a statement Wednesday. Novalés declined multiple interview requests, saying he did not trust reporters to accurately quote him. Parishioners contacted on social media, some of whom posted about being sick with COVID-19, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a prayer meeting streamed on Facebook Live on Thursday night, church leaders acknowledged the unwelcome attention.

“CityReach church, what we want to see all over the media is, ‘Jesus is the answer to our problems,‘” Pastor Wanda Novalés, Mark Novalés’ wife, said. “Wouldn’t you love to see that in The Inquirer?”

The small church in a former storefront on Torresdale Avenue has become part of a nationwide pandemic trend, as some houses of worship that closed or went virtual during the early days of the pandemic and then reopened for in-person services are now seeing cases spread among congregants.

More than 650 cases of the virus have been traced to places of worship, the New York Times reported in July. And in some churches, time-honored worship traditions are clashing with government guidelines designed to slow the spread of the virus and keep congregants safe.

Philadelphia health officials said they were concerned by videos at CityReach showing pastors and singers without masks and groups of people singing together, practices shown to spread respiratory droplets, which is considered the most efficient way the virus is transmitted. Parishioners had also told the city health department that attendance at CityReach services was between 20 and 50; the city recommends that indoor gatherings be limited to 25 people.

“We love churches that are very interactive with their parishioners, but we’re asking congregants to not sing. Humming and clapping is a safer way for them to participate,” said Matt Rankin, a spokesperson for the health department. “We’re concerned when any group of people are singing out loud without masks in any setting.”

CityReach is not the only Philadelphia church whose worship practices fall short of the city’s guidelines for reopening during the city’s “green” phase.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for example, which oversees scores of Catholic churches in the region, has said priests should not wear masks. It also has allowed Holy Communion to continue — with parishioners removing their masks to receive it — despite the city’s recommendation against “hand-to-hand” distribution of items.

“As far as enforcement, we really are relying on voluntary compliance,” Rankin said. “Outside of that, we really don’t have the capacity, at this point at least, to do checks and inspections on every religious [institution] in the city. We don’t have the manpower to do it.”

Philadelphia health officials said CityReach parishioners had helped them trace the outbreak.

“Fortunately, the congregation has been really forthcoming about when they went to church, providing some hints as to the size of the services and also identifying other individuals that people might be concerned about,” said Angelico Razon, a physician and medical specialist for the health department’s COVID containment division.

CityReach reopened in-person services on July 19, and leadership required masks for congregants, encouraged social distancing, and had sanitizing stations throughout the building. But the singing continued, and those singing on stage, using microphones, did not wear masks, according to live-streams of services posted on YouTube.

When parishioners returned to CityReach on July 19, they were told to choose one of two colored wristbands: Green signaled comfort with physical contact, like a fist bump, handshake or high five; red meant keep a distance. When asked during services on July 26 who was wearing a green wristband, the crowd erupted in cheers, a live-stream of the service shows.

During sermons, Mark Novalés encouraged finding strength in faith to get through the pandemic. In one service, Wanda Novalés announced that the church would be hosting a “Holy Ghost” party on Aug. 4 with the band Eddie James Ministries.

“We are not going to open this up to the world because we want to maintain social distancing,” she can be seen exhorting the congregation during a livestream of the service. “We want to do all we have to do so you feel safe. But we’re going to have a party here in the house on Aug. 4.”

Two days later, the health department said, a member started showing COVID-19 symptoms.

Services and singing continued into August with Mark Novalés acknowledging on Aug. 9 that there were “a lot of folks watching online who are not feeling well.” Later that same week, CityReach postponed in-person services and hosted a virtual service.

Together, they prayed for people who were feeling sick.

During the Thursday Facebook Live event, the Novaléses said they would follow the city’s guidelines around gatherings during the pandemic. “But we opened the doors of our church because we believe that Jesus is the answer to our problems,” Wanda Novalés said. “COVID is a threat to our physical bodies. We’re not ignorant, and we know that is important.”

Mark Novalés said that the church “can’t pinpoint” where parishioners contracted the virus but that the church believes in “a God of power and healing,” and asked those watching the livestream to pray for the congregation. He said the church would open its doors again “as soon as we feel led by God.”

“Pain, leave, in Jesus’ name,” he said. “Disease, leave, in Jesus’ name. COVID-19, there is no room for you, because we believe in a name greater than any name, and that is the name of Jesus.”