Houston pastor says his megachurch is among the 'safest places in America' from COVID-19

Northwest Houston's Fallbrook Church is one of two churches established as COVID-19 testing sites by New York State. | Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

If any one of their more than 10,000-members is going to get sick with the new coronavirus, Olus Holder, executive pastor of Fallbrook Church in Houston, Texas, says they won’t be getting it from attending his church.

Fallbrook, which was founded by Senior Pastor Michael A. Pender Sr., was announced Thursday as one of two COVID-19 testing sites established in the city with help from New York state. The church sits on a 40-acre property and its sanctuary seats about 2,300 people. The other church established as a COVID-19 testing site with aid from New York state is southwest Houston's Higher Dimension Church.

Through capacity restrictions, a ban on congregational singing, the use of thermal and laser screening technology, along with appropriate mask-wearing, hand sanitizing and social distancing, Holder told The Christian Post in an interview Friday that not one member has gotten the virus yet.

“If they are going to get sick, they’re going to get sick somewhere else because of all the sanitary measures we have, the social distancing,” Holder said.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Texas authorities have reported almost 293,000 cases of COVID-19 with 3,561 fatalities as of Thursday. In Harris County where the state’s largest city is mostly located, nearly 52,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed by local health officials along with just over 500 deaths among a population of more than 4.7 million.

Holder explained that Fallbrook had initially migrated online completely but later discovered that there were some members who did not have access to the internet.

“I think people forget, everybody don’t have the internet in the United States of America. And we didn’t think about it until they called us and told us,” he said.

The church then developed a rigorous COVID-19 protocol which includes the use of thermal scanning cameras and laser thermometers. They also limited in-person attendance to 7% or just 161 attendees to accommodate individuals who don't have access to the internet.

Senior Pastor Michael A. Pender of Fallbrook Church in Houston, Texas. | Facebook/Pastor Mike Pender

Since the church is only open for a specific group, Holder says those in-person gatherings are not promoted.

“If someone comes, we’ll let them in but we won’t go over 161,” he said.

“If you come in our sanctuary, seats are blocked off, whole sections are blocked off. Another neat thing that we do, when you come into Fallbrook you have to sanitize your hand. Also we have thermal scanning temperature cameras. We have two of those,” he explained.

“If someone has a temperature, we get an alert, we get a picture. Then we send them to the next station where we have the laser thermometers. And then, if that says they have a temperature with our thermal cameras, we send them home. So far we have not had that,” Holder said. “I’m just trying to show you how safe we are. We are one of the safest places in America.”

Congregants are also asked not to sing inside the church and members of their praise team are separated by plexiglass.

“We don’t allow singing in the congregation, but our praise team, they have Plexiglass monitors between each one of them and then our stage is so far away from the seating. We do not recommend singing. Of course, you can't stop people from doing that, but everybody has on their mask,” he said.

On Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would be doing up to 1,000 daily COVID-19 tests at Fallbrook and Higher Dimension Church which serve at-risk minority communities.

Along with testing supplies, New York sent more than 20 healthcare workers and public health experts to Houston to consult on the city's COVID-19 response.

"When New York went through the unprecedented challenge and unimaginable tragedy of COVID-19's apex in the state, states throughout the country provided supplies, ventilators and personnel during our time of greatest need," Cuomo said in a statement. "Now that New York's numbers have stabilized, we're returning the favor across the country, and I am glad to be able to help the great city of Houston establish two testing sites in vulnerable communities. I thank our incredible partners for their efforts to establish the sites and provide supplies and expertise."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who Holder describes as a friend of Fallbrook, praised Cuomo for his leadership on responding to the pandemic.

“I've watched your daily briefings on a regular basis. I learned a lot from what you have done and your people have done in New York,” he said.

“We are facing a situation where our numbers have surged. More people have been testing positive, showing up in our hospitals and our ICUs. Testing is a big issue. And you're also right that this virus is having a disproportional impact on communities of color, low-income communities, and where even more testing is needed. And people — a lot of people — who are wanting testing, needing testing and they've having to wait a long time. So let me thank you and your team for reaching out," Turner said in a statement.

The church testing sites were established with the support of SOMOS Community Care, NorthwellHealth, the Greater New York Hospital Association, the Mount Sinai Health System, Montefiore Medical Center, and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. 

Holder said about 356 people showed up for testing from the community on Thursday and a steady stream of people was coming in on Friday morning. He said the support from New York for Houston was welcome.

“We think that is great because again, Fallbrook church, we serve the people and that’s what the state of New York, Governor Cuomo’s office is doing. The medical team, his whole staff is very professional. They are very warm, they have a great heart and they serve, they work hard. And that’s how Fallbrook is. We are a church, we work hard to serve the people and we’re not looking for any credit,” he said.

The Houston testing sites add to New York commitment to helping other cities and states fight COVID-19 across the country. On Monday, Cuomo announced New York would send testing and contract tracing teams to Atlanta, Georgia. On July 10, Cuomo also announced New York would send the COVID-19 medication Remdesivir to Florida.

The schedule of testing at the churches are listed below.

Fallbrook Church testing availability: 

  • July 16-18, 9 a.m – 5 p.m
  • July 20-24, 9 a.m – 5 p.m
  • July 25, 8 a.m. - 12 p.m.
  • July 27, 9 a.m. - 12 p.m.

Higher Dimension Church testing availability: 

  • July 17-18, 9 a.m – 5 p.m
  • July 20-24, 9 a.m – 5 p.m
  • July 25, 8 a.m. - 12 p.m.
  • July 27, 9 a.m. - 12 p.m.

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