A Kentucky megachurch pastor who clashed with Gov. Andy Beshear over restrictions on in-person services imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, says he's suspended in-person worship services again after 18 members of his church tested positive for the virus since he resumed in-person services a month after closing.
Clay Mills Baptist Church on Brannon Road in Nicholasville, just south of the Lexington city limits, held in-person services on May 17 and May 24, Jeff Fugate, pastor of the 2,500-member church, told the Courier Journal. Since then, he said, at least 18 members of his church have tested positive for the new coronavirus. He stressed that there's "no indication" they were infected at church.
Randy Gooch, executive director of the Jessamine County Health Department, told the publication, however, that evidence reviewed by his office suggests the infections were linked to the church.
“Our disease investigation is indicative of these cases tracing back to their contact with other cases at Clays Mill Baptist,” Gooch said. “Our initial case was confirmed symptomatic when they attended church, so this gives us good reason to believe they are connected.”
In an extended post on Wednesday morning, Fugate, who's also president of the Commonwealth Baptist College, slammed Kentucky’s governor and the health department for targeting his church in an extended statement on Facebook.
“The contact tracing work seemed to stop with our church. Did the virus come from someone’s place of work, the mall, a grocery store or big box store? Why did Governor Beshear and the Health Department single out by name, me and our church? Why not reveal the names and places where the virus came from ‘before’ coming to our church. This sounds like ‘contact targeting’ rather than contact tracing,” Fugate argued.
“Our church did not ‘produce’ the virus, someone had to have picked up the virus somewhere before we opened church to the public for just two weeks. We had not had in-person church services since March 15. However, to prevent anyone else from getting the virus I suspended in-person services until June 21. I have said from the beginning that the health and safety of our people is most important to me,” he continued.
Fugate noted that his church is now meeting online only and said that Beshear did not like that he stood with Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron in April and called for him to lift restrictions on in-person worship.
“The governor is disappointed that I stood with Attorney General Daniel Cameron for the constitutional right of churches to hold in-person services,” the pastor said.
A May 8 ruling from U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove, in a case involving Tabernacle Baptist Church, allowed churches in Kentucky to resume in-person gatherings ahead of the May 20 timeline when Beshear said he would lift his ban on church gatherings.
“Judge Van Tatenhove ruled against Governor Beshear’s restrictions on churches revealing in the judge’s decision the bias of the governor against churches. (Read the ruling). The truth is, and it is obvious that Governor Beshear is guilty of bias toward churches. He does not practice what he has preached every day since early March about wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding gatherings. He says one thing and does another,” Fugate said.
“We will continue to work to keep our people safe and healthy while attending church. Governor Beshear can continue to promote large gatherings at protests (except those that disagree with him) or wherever he deems is appropriate and at the same time limit our Kentucky businesses and single out churches. That is his business – but, his bias is showing!”
Fugate told the Courier Journal that on June 21, the church will resume in-person services in a new outdoor tent that can fit 400 people.
"Folks can park all the way around the new tent and listen on the radio if they want to stay in their cars outside of the tent," he said, noting that those who are sick should stay home.
Addressing the coronavirus in a recent briefing, Beshear said, “I hope that everybody (who) tested positive from services at Clays Mill has seen or talked to a doctor. We want all of you to be OK."
Beshear then mentioned how Fugate stood with Cameron in April and said, "Governor, we can do this safely."
"Well, he couldn’t," Beshear argued.