In this Jan. 19, 2017, photo, Pastor Todd Bell, of the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Maine, is shown in Alfred, Maine. Bell officiated at an Aug. 7, 2020, wedding in Millinocket that has been identified as one of a series of events where an outbreak of COVID-19 cases occurred in the area. Credit: Tammy Wells / Portland Press Herald via AP

SANFORD, Maine — The pastor at a Sanford Baptist church linked to a wave of new COVID-19 outbreaks in Maine disputed the legitimacy of the virus in a fiery indoor sermon on Sunday, lifting religious faith over realities of the pandemic and discouraging followers from heeding government mandates.

Todd Bell, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church, said he believed “God, not government,” would control the pandemic. He advised followers to wear masks if they wanted, but doing so was “like keeping a mosquito out of a chain-link fence.”

In his sermon, Bell brushed off scrutiny and media reports about his involvement in the recent outbreaks in the Katahdin area and Sanford, which have been linked to more than 120 COVID-19 cases — the largest outbreak in the state — as well as the death of an 83-year-old woman who did not attend the event.

Hymns from a 15-person maskless choir preceded Bell’s sermon, which was delivered in-person at the church on Sunday. The Sanford church posted the sermon on YouTube a day after the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Saturday it was investigating a coronavirus outbreak linked to at least five people there.

The pastor’s lax attitude about the virus has strained a partnership between Calvary Baptist Church and York County Shelter, which used the church’s building to provide food and other resources to dozens of unhoused and low-income people in the community.

The shelter moved its operations outdoors this week and its meal program is now relying solely on staff, effectively barring volunteers from the church from helping.

“Folks that we’ve worked with for a long time understand and have a lot of respect for us wanting to protect the people that we serve,” York County Shelter Director Megan Gean-Gendron said, adding that the agency had worked hard to implement CDC guidelines.

But she’s concerned the church has put vulnerable people at risk. About 85 percent of clients at the shelter have lung, heart and diabetic conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, Gean-Gendron said.

The pastor has been a central figure in the state’s largest outbreak after officiating a wedding in East Millinocket on Aug. 7. Many at the reception were not wearing masks.

Bell downplayed the broader implications of the outbreak, saying that he knew “something bad had happened” Saturday because he started receiving texts of encouragement after the CDC said it was investigating links to the church and the latest outbreak.

Commenters on social media have criticized the pastor and members of his congregation for spreading the virus.

“Would you rather your pastor study the Bible this morning or read all 3,000 comments of negativity?” he said. “You don’t want the pastor who is being ruled by untrue comments. You want the pastor who’s being ruled by Jesus Christ. So I’ve come to Christ — I encourage you to do the same.”

The Calvary Baptist Church has been linked to the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak through its pastor, Todd Bell, who officiated a wedding in the Millinocket area on Aug. 7. The outbreak has prompted a local shelter to distance themselves from the church, moving a meals program outdoors and restricting volunteers to prevent community spread in Sanford’s low-income and unhoused populations. (Nick Schroeder | BDN)

Bell’s sermon criticized the widespread news coverage surrounding the outbreak at his church, and the pastor said he wished the media “would just say exactly what’s going on.”

Bell and church officials did not respond to inquiries for comment.

In a sermon that often veered into political territory, Bell, who came to Maine from North Carolina in 1994, framed Calvary Baptist Church as if it were in the trenches of a culture war with liberals.

“I’ll tell you what the world wants all the churches to do,” Bell said. “They want us to shut down, go home and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.”

Bell’s comments echoed words used by President Donald Trump in a speech delivered in New Hampshire on Thursday, where Trump claimed that Democrats “don’t believe law-abiding citizens can go to a church together.”

State rules meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus allow up to 50 people to gather for in-person services, and those rules encourage churches to instead hold online, outdoor and drive-in services.

In his sermon, Bell repeated misinformation that the U.S. death rate in 2020 was “the same as it was last year.” The virus has infected nearly 6 million people in the U.S. since March, resulting in more than 187,000 deaths and many others with lasting ailments.

Bell also cautioned against the use of vaccines for the coronavirus once they are developed, claiming they contain “aborted baby tissue,” referring to vaccines for chickenpox, rubella and other diseases that were once developed using fetal cells from elective abortions years ago.

Instead of vaccines, Bell said he would put his faith in God — “the one that has the power to remove pestilences.”

Others in the community also feel unsafe because of the church’s response.

Kay Rumery said that Bell and two other missionaries from the church attempted to push their way into her Sanford home in August within days of the wedding Bell officiated in Millinocket.

“They came in without masks and asked to come in even further,” Rumery said. “They asked twice if I was sure they couldn’t come into my living room. When I refused they forced a pamphlet at me.”

Rumery said she felt unsettled when Bell and church members approached her without wearing masks and invited her to church.

“I didn’t think churches were supposed to be open,” Rumery said.