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Baltimore church closed last week for COVID violations holds Sunday services, defying health department orders

A week ago, health department officials ordered a Baltimore-based megachurch to close its doors over coronavirus-related violations.

Baltimore City Health Department inspectors said parishioners weren’t wearing masks as required and weren’t social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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Since then, however, operations at Greater Grace World Outreach Church in Northeast Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood have largely carried on as normal. The church welcomed worshippers in person again for its services Sunday morning, while also livestreaming them online, flouting the closure order.

There were baptisms, talk of the Easter play to come, and congregants sharing coffee at the church cafe between services.

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On Wednesday, Baltimore police stopped by with health officials, but a service that night carried on to its conclusion. All was quiet Sunday morning, with no police presence.

About a hundred worshippers at a time gathered inside the church for Sunday services, and many did not wear masks. One section of the church was roped off for social distancing and mask-wearing, and about 30 people sat there at a time. Masks are required in all indoor spaces in Baltimore, with few exceptions, such as if individuals are eating or drinking.

Some at Greater Grace were disappointed that the health department had attempted to intervene in the church’s operations.

“It’s everything to me,” parishioner Maggie Lockhart said. “It’s my life.”

“It’s dragged on long enough,” she said of the pandemic-related restrictions.

During Sunday’s services, Pastor Thomas Schaller invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words about protest.

“ ‘Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,’ ” Schaller quoted.

“We can love each other, laugh, talk, hug, kiss,” he said. “[God] said forsake not assembling often with one another — and that’s what we’re doing.”

Church officials declined to comment to The Baltimore Sun for this article.

Similar debates about pandemic restrictions in churches have reached the nation’s highest court. In November, the Supreme Court ruled against New York’s restrictions on places of worship. Religious institutions in that state had argued that the restrictions, which were more stringent than Baltimore’s, unfairly targeted them. They placed 10- and 25-person limits for services, depending on coronavirus rates in the areas.

To be cleared for reopening, Greater Grace has to submit a plan to the city health department stating how it plans to abide by coronavirus restrictions, then review it with health officials.

The mayor’s office met with the church last week, said spokeswoman Stefanie Mavronis. Monday, the church submitted a safety plan for Easter, but hasn’t yet submitted a general plan. That is expected “in the near future,” Mavronis said.

Mavronis declined to answer questions about whether officials plan further investigation into or action against the church.

Meanwhile, city agencies will continue enforcing the mayor’s coronavirus executive order, Mavronis said. Starting Friday, places of worship will be permitted to operate at 50% capacity indoors, rather than 25%, as will restaurants, gyms, retailers and more. Masks remain required indoors.

“Enforcement of the mayor’s executive order — rooted in the public health data — will continue. While the city has issued a temporary closure notice and citation to Greater Grace Church for violations of Baltimore’s COVID-19 mandates, we remain encouraged by the vast majority of faith institutions that continue to find ways to worship safely during this pandemic,” Mavronis wrote.

During his sermons Sunday, Schaller opined about the pandemic, adding that he feels the larger crisis affecting Americans is related to mental health.

“Where’s the church? It’s shut down. People are afraid. People are gonna get sick, they’re gonna die,” Schaller said. “Shut it down — no.”

Schaller lamented that the national dialogue is focused on the coronavirus and not viruses transmitted through unprotected sex, sometimes between gay people, such as HIV.

“I never hear about it,” he said. “All I hear about is masks.”

Schaller has previously spoken out against gay rights from the pulpit, attacking churches “with a rainbow flag,” for instance. And his words about COVID-19 are nothing new. On Dec. 13, the day the city health department issued its first citation to Greater Grace, Schaller expressed frustration about people fearful of the virus.

He asked everyone in the crowd that day who had contracted the virus to stand, saying he had also contracted COVID-19. In just the first few rows visible on the livestream camera, about a dozen people could be seen rising to their feet.

“Isn’t there herd immunity or something?” Schaller said.

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