COLUMBUS, Ohio — “Could you raise your hands if you were not exposed to it?”
When a pastor welcomed his congregation back to their church in Sugarcreek, Ohio a month after a COVID-19 superspreader event, it was easiest to count how many members had not been exposed to the virus.
Standing at the church’s lectern with a guitar strapped around his shoulder, the pastor started counting. Only 16 people put up their hands.
Wayne Weaver is the pastor of Oasis Tabernacle, an inter-denominational church comprised largely of formerly Amish Ohioans. He is somewhat of a mogul in the small town of Sugarcreek, known as the “Little Switzerland of Ohio” and home to the world's largest cuckoo clock. Weaver owns Weaver’s furniture, an Amish style furniture manufacturing business with a 25,000 square foot showroom, as well as Weaver Barns, which builds custom Amish sheds, and Wallhouse Coffee Co.
On Aug. 9, he preaches to a growing congregation at Oasis Tabernacle, which the Sugarcreek mayor said is well on its way to being a “megachurch” with a significant expansion currently under construction.
The virus had swept through the church community. Weaver knew the spread was significant because he had visited the homes of a number of families who contracted the virus, but others did not inform the church of their sicknesses or seek care from Weaver.
On July 19, the first service back after the church ceased services due to the superspreader event at the June 14 service, he was assessing the full scope of the spread. Of those who did not contract the virus, many had been seated on the sides of the church, he observed. A higher proportion of those who sat in the center rows were infected.
“It has to do some with where our air returns are and all this stuff. It’s interesting. Anyways, feel comfortable. Nobody died in this thing,” he said in a since-deleted live broadcast of the service.
At an Aug. 4 press conference, Gov. Mike DeWine displayed a graphic documenting how COVID-19 spread through an Ohio church leading to 91 cases. “It spread like wildfire,” he said.
The graphic shows a 56-year-old attending a June 14 service, after which 53 church attendees got sick. Eighteen of those people spread it to at least one family member or coworker leading to the 91 total cases. The governor did not name the church, but it is a representation of the outbreak at Oasis Tabernacle.
The health department for Tuscarawas County, where Oasis Tabernacle is located, said Aug. 6 that it put the graphic together on DeWine’s behalf. The health department confirmed the church was in Tuscarawas and also declined to name the church.
The health department for Holmes County, which borders Tuscarawas County and is home to some members of the church, confirmed that 34 of its residents contracted COVID-19 from the Oasis Tabernacle outbreak, including 22 confirmed cases and 12 probable cases.
Mayor of New Philadelphia Joel Day said his city’s Health Commissioner Vickie Ionno had heard the outbreak was at an Amish church in Sugarcreek. A representative of the Walnut Creek Mennonite Church, which is near Sugarcreek, said Oasis Tabernacle had an outbreak. The Tuscarawas County Health Department confirmed that the church featured in DeWine’s news conference is “the only church in Tuscarawas County that has experienced an outbreak.”
The graphic shows how far the virus had spread as of July 4. After resuming in-person services on July 19, later in the month when the state instituted a mask mandate Oasis Tabernacle reverted to broadcasting services on Facebook.
In now deleted Facebook posts, Oasis Tabernacle informed the church community when services were canceled due to COVID-19 exposure. Deleted broadcasts of July and August services captured church leaders’ assessment of the outbreak and recollections of their personal experiences with COVID-19, a church member’s apology for possibly spreading the virus, and Weaver’s contemplations as to whether services would go on in person or virtually in the aftermath of the outbreak.
Some members of Oasis Tabernacle are strongly opposed to masks and Weaver expected Tuscarawas County to be strict on enforcement of the mandate, so he did not want to get in the middle of it. Not worth the hassle, he said.
“We are just as frustrated as you are,” he told the congregation during a service. “Tuscarawas County is much stricter than these other counties. In the county where I’m from, we could have service and we wouldn’t have to worry about being checked, but in Tuscarawas County, they seem to really be strongly strict.”
But on Sunday, Weaver announced that he has had enough. Even it means getting arrested, he said, Oasis Tabernacle will hold services in person. Mask-wearing will not be enforced, but he Weaver said he will keep a sign on the door with the state’s rules to cover his bases. The church has no active COVID-19 cases, Weaver said.
He said his mind changed in part after he learned something that truly made his head spin: Lots of government doctors also have degrees in political science, so they are too biased to understand the virus, he said.
Even though his brother Roy Weaver, an Oasis Tabernacle council member, got extremely sick from COVID-19, ending up in an ICU, Wayne Weaver thinks the virus is not much to worry about.
“I would much rather have COVID than the flu,” he said. “My personal belief is everyone's going to be exposed to it sooner or later.”
Asked for comment, Roy Weaver said the media is “trying to persecute believers,” and also said the virus is often milder than the flu.
Weaver likened his decision to hold in-person services to that of John MacArthur, a Los Angeles pastor who reopened his church in defiance of California’s lockdown orders and had 3,000 attendees.
“If they come and shut us down and put me in prison, come visit me,” he said. “I’ll die for my faith. This is enough of it.”
The Tuscarawas County Health Department said under the state’s COVID-19 rules there is nothing stopping Weaver from holding service. He is not at any risk of arrest.
In Ohio, religious services were exempted from COVID-19 mandates due to First Amendment freedoms. The state has given churches some recommended best practices, including six feet distancing between family groups and encouraging at-risk individuals to watch virtually.
Weaver’s announcement came after he criticized the media earlier in the service for making a story of the church’s outbreak. He says the media is trying to create a display of the outbreak to make church look unsafe. And he again tore into DeWine’s mask requirements.
“The governor has asked basically that face masks would be worn in public gatherings, all except protests,” he said. “If we would have protests in this church maybe we could all be here and not wear any masks.”
Weaver first became aware of the graphic when his brother texted it to him. He wasn’t sure if the graphic was a representation of his church.
“It didn't occur to me that he was exactly talking about our church. But then I thought, I wonder if that is what he was talking about,” he said.
If the graphic is supposed to represent Oasis Tabernacle, the graphic is a misrepresentation of the outbreak, Weaver claims.
“I believe the health department has screwed everything up if it's representative of us,” he said. “If that's the way the government does studies, oh my goodness, then nothing's correct.”
In a statement responding to Weaver’s criticisms, Tuscarawas’s Health Commissioner Katie Seward said the cases in the graphic were pulled from Ohio’s electronic reporting system, which ties cases to outbreaks using data from multiple health jurisdictions. The system includes medical records, lab reports, and patient interviews. Due to the volume of the data, the database may include more cases than members of an affected community thought had occurred, which can create confusion, she said.
“Due to large data inputs and health information persons within the community may not be aware of all of the information associated with any given outbreak, making them question the validity of the information,” she said in the statement, which did not name Oasis Tabernacle.
Asked specifically what he thought is wrong with the graphic, Weaver said “everything.” He was reluctant to share more details. If the governor comes out and says the outbreak was Oasis Tabernacle, he said he will go on TV and call out the government by showing all the inaccuracies of the graphic. Until then, he said he would refrain.
But over the course of an hour-long phone interview that he took from his backyard, sitting on a mini track-hoe he was using to dig a drainage ditch, he did mention a couple gripes.
Weaver said the graphic is an inaccurate representation of Oasis Tabernacle’s cases based on his knowledge of the outbreak, which comes from informal surveying of church members and the sometimes limited information health officials were authorized to share with him. With access to the state electronic case outbreak system, the health department said it holds a more complete assessment of the situation.
First, he said the graphic is inaccurate as it relates to him personally. The graphic shows a 64-year-old spreading COVID-19 to his 22-year-old son. Weaver, who is 64, contracted COVID-19, and as far as he knows he is the only 64-year-old in the church who got sick. He does not have a 22-year-old son.
“The government messed this one up really bad,” Weaver said. “They tried to glorify a story to make it really hit the news.”
The graphic only lists the ages of the 35 people who are confirmed to have spread it to a family member. The ages and genders of the 35 others are not shown.
Second, Weaver disbelieves that contact tracers could even accurately tally how cases are linked to the church outbreak because lots of his friends have no idea who exactly they contracted it from. Regardless, Weaver said 91 cases is not the right number. He declined to share his own count.
Lastly, Weaver said it was not a 56-year-old man who originally spread the virus. Church officials believed that the infections branched out from a positive case from a man in his 40s. He had active symptoms and stayed home on June 14, but his family went to church and was believed to have spread it.
At the church’s first service back after the month-long closure, the man apologized for disobeying the church leadership’s request for members to stay home if they are sick or exposed.
“While nobody was sick when they were here, I was at home sick and some of my family came to church. And there was a lot of people sick since then. And we just simply apologize for that, ask for forgiveness,” he said. “We would never intentionally do anything to hurt anybody in this body.”
If the state’s graphic is accurate, there was someone else in the audience, who perhaps has not identified himself to Weaver, that was the real superspreader.
Weaver did accept the man’s apology.
“I’m so glad for everyone that had [COVID-19],” he said. “I wasn’t glad when you were having it. But now I’m glad that you had it. Amen. So let’s forgive them. We’re people of grace. We all make mistakes.”
Weaver has taken a unique approach since recovering from his mild bout with the coronavirus. He said he tries to re-expose himself to the virus as much as possible by visiting the homes of the sick in the hope that doing so will keep his antibody protection strong.
The first time he visited an infected home, he was not sure if he would get sick again, but he was not worried. “It's so mild I don't mind having it,” he said. Weaver did not get sick again. He views that as proof that antibody protection to the coronavirus is lasting, and proof that his in-person church services are safe. Those who were sick will have immunity for at least six months, he predicts.
During his home visits, Weaver brings medicine and popsicles, which he says offer great relief, and provides the sick with “the shepherd’s care.” What that entails is private.
“Some of you have seen some things that you’ve never seen me do because I don’t really tell you what all I do,” he said during a service. “When I know that you are open to the shepherd’s care, I care for you. But then there’s some that are perhaps not open to the shepherd’s care, and then I will read into that and stay back.”
While Weaver had a mild case, other pastors had it worse.
Associate pastor Dalen Schlabach shared his rough personal experience being sick with COVID-19 – dizziness, disorientation, and uncertainty if he was living or dying.
“The enemy brought this… He will use things to his advantage against the body of Christ, so beware of that,” Schlabach said at the July 19 service. “I believe it’s the mercy of God there was no life that is lost.”
Associate pastor Steve Yoder also described his trials with the virus. He said it was the worst sickness of his life. The fever lasted two weeks, and one morning he passed out. Worst of all, it worked on his mind, and gave him depressing thoughts.
“In the middle of it – I don’t believe I was close to dying – but in the middle of it, I thought, you know what, there really are some things I should’ve got into order before I die,” he said. “Why did I get that sick? I don’t know. Was it because I didn’t have enough faith? Maybe.”
Mayor of Sugarcreek Jeffery Stutzman said he is religious, but close quarters indoors congregation like that at Oasis Tabernacle is the fastest way to spread the virus. So he watches his church’s services virtually. The idea that enough faith can protect you from the disease is “a bit too supernatural” for him, he said.
“I believe in God and I go to church and I believe God can protect you, but I believe he also wants you to not be stupid,” Stutzman said.