Manatee health officials say 3 churches have COVID-19 outbreaks

Manatee County

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Commissioners in Manatee County enacted a mask mandate in late July.

The resolution requires people to wear masks inside businesses when social distancing isn’t possible, but about three weeks ago, commissioners voted to amend part of the resolution that included places of worship.

During a meeting Tuesday, Manatee County Department of Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Bencie told commissioners there are currently three churches in the county experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.

“The epidemiologists believe that the church was the common place where the virus was transmitted in these cases,” said Dr. Bencie.

Dr. Bencie did not go into detail as to where the churches are located, but she did explain there have been six, seven and eight cases adding up to a total of 21 people contracting the virus in church.

“There is an issue of concern there,” she said.

The update came as a surprise to multiple members of the commission. Dr. Bencie reiterated the importance of keeping the county-wide mask mandate in place.

“In the last 3 to 4 weeks, we have been seeing a change for the better. I believe it is because we are doing the preventative mitigative measures that are necessary including masks and social distancing,” said Dr. Bencie.

8 On Your Side reached out to the local health department multiple times for more details Wednesday. As of 6 p.m. we had not received a response.

Despite learning of outbreaks at local churches, commissioners voted in favor of finalizing the church exemption into the county’s mask mandate resolution. Commissioner Carol Whitmore tells 8 On Your Side she was looking at trends county-wide when making her decision.

She hopes local religious leaders are taking safety precautions to protect themselves and their parishioners from COVID-19.

“I don’t think all the churches are just opening it wide because their parishioners are wearing masks and they want their parishioners to come back. I have many friends that are going to church and they are saying the majority of the people are wearing masks. Again, this is a health crisis. This has nothing to do with politics or fake science. The masks have proven that this works. We all wear our masks everywhere we go and nobody likes it, and I am the first one to say it, but I am going to do it to protect you sitting across the room,” said Commissioner Whitmore.

Commissioner Whitmore, who is also a nurse, is asking the public to get a flu shot.

“It is very, very important. Get your flu shot because you do not want to mix the flu with COVID,” she said.

8 On Your Side spoke with pastors at multiple churches in Manatee County who are requiring masks.

At First United Methodist Church in Bradenton, lead Pastor H. Clark Edward said they are doing everything in their power to keep people safe.

The church has been doing online services for the past several months.

This upcoming Sunday will be the first time the church will allow members of the congregation back into the building, in addition to streaming services online. Pastor Edward said everyone will be required to wear a mask, get their temperature checked and socially distance. In addition to those requirements, there won’t be any singing going on during the indoor service.

“It is going to be a new experience for us. We have not been down this road before. Our theme is to ‘do no harm’ and we want to make everyone safe, comfortable and welcomed,” said Pastor Edward.

“We have a senior population and we want to respect that and we want to care for them and to make sure that we are doing the right thing by everyone who attends and to take care of each other,” he continued.

He said the church plans on going above and beyond to keep people safe as long as necessary.

“We realize that people have different opinions about things and that is OK, but we’ve got to look at the big picture and what is best for the good as a whole, not just what I personally would like. We are going to be OK, that is the main thing, we are going to do all we can to take care of each other and time will tell and hopefully we will continue to improve in the community,” said the pastor.

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