MECHANIC FALLS — After numerous church members have contracted COVID-19, in-person Easter Sunday worship has been called off at Vineyard Church on Lewiston Street.

The service will be online.

The Maine Center for Disease Control reported Friday that it has opened an outbreak investigation associated with the church.

As of 11:59 p.m. Thursday, the outbreak investigation involved nine cases, Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said Friday.

“Case investigations reveal epidemiological links between cases in at least three separate households. The outbreak investigation and contact tracing are ongoing,” he said in an email.

Asked whether the possible outbreak is linked to church services, Long said the nine cases have connection to the church, “but the investigation is ongoing and now there is no finding that the church is the origin of their nine infected people’s exposure to the virus.”

On Friday evening Long provided new information from the outbreak investigator, saying that like most outbreaks not associated with a congregate living setting, “this one likely results from community transmission, and does not appear to be entirely related to exposure at the church.”

The church announced on its Facebook page there’ll be no in-person worship on Easter and Sunday, April 11.

Pastor Dick Ray said Friday his church has been in contact with the CDC.

“They said that we have taken appropriate measures throughout the year and even commended us for being transparent and extra cautious with stopping our in-person services during this time,” Ray wrote in an email.

The church has postponed its food pantry and taken extra measures to ensure the safety of its BackPack charity program, he added.

“We are seeing the virus spreading throughout so many networks in our community as your newspaper has noted,” the pastor said. “Our community of faith has been touched also. We have many people and families who associate outside of church services. Is it difficult to not celebrate Easter in person? Definitely, but people’s well-being is paramount.”

The church’s Facebook post, which the pastor shared with the Sun Journal, said church members who have contracted the virus got it from various or unknown sources.

“Whatever the source, (and though the majority of people report only minor symptoms) we do not take this lightly,” he said.

According to the church’s Facebook post, during the past year, Vineyard Church has taken extra precautions to prevent COVID-19. With those precautions, “we have not seen any spread of the virus within our fellowship, just a few people who contracted it at their place of employment.”

The steps the church has taken, Ray said, include limiting seating capacity, social distancing, sanitizing, upgrading ventilation systems and providing masks.

But in the March 21 church service video, musicians are singing and playing instruments not wearing masks.

“All individuals, including vocalists, must wear a mask,” the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development said in its protocols to religious gatherings. “Because singing is a higher risk activity, well-fitting, three-layer surgical style masks are recommended as opposed to a cloth mask.” Transmission risk increases with the length of singing activity, the department said.

In the church Facebook post, members are told “this is not the Easter we had envisioned, but we have much to be thankful for and much to celebrate.”

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