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[News Focus] Church services likely to lead to community spread of coronavirus

Sujeong-gu environmental sanitation department officials sanitize the area near River of Grace Community Church in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Monday. (Yonhap)
Sujeong-gu environmental sanitation department officials sanitize the area near River of Grace Community Church in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Monday. (Yonhap)

Another cluster outbreak of COVID-19 occurred near the capital, as 40 members of River of Grace Community Church in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, were newly confirmed with the novel coronavirus infection on Monday morning. Another person who came in contact with a church member was also confirmed Monday afternoon.

The first patient at the church was confirmed on March 9, followed by a couple on Friday. On Saturday, one woman was confirmed and on Sunday, the head pastor and his wife, both asymptomatic, were confirmed positive.

Only seven of the 135 people who had attended Sunday service together on March 8 were quarantined at home after the first case was confirmed, leading authorities to fear the start of a community spread. One of the infected patients worked at a community center helping the elderly until Friday.

Tests of 106 of the 135 people who attended the Sunday service on March 8 showed 40 people infected with the novel coronavirus. Eight people are being retested. 

“We were reducing the number of services to only Sunday services when this happened. As the senior pastor, I will take responsibility and criticism,” said Rev. Kim of the River of Grace Community Church, according to media reports. “I don’t know about big churches, but small churches like ours or churches with old pastors do not have the infrastructure to go live on YouTube,” Kim added. 

This is the second highest number for a cluster infection in the area surrounding the capital after a cluster infection was confirmed March 8 at a call center in Guro-gu, Seoul. A total of 129 people have been confirmed with the infection in relation to the call center.

“If any member of the River of Grace Community Church or family member has any symptoms of the coronavirus, we sincerely request that people self-report and be tested,” said Seongnam Mayor Eun Soo-mi in an emergency briefing Monday.

“We also sincerely request once again that religious facilities in Seongnam cancel group gatherings and services,” she added. “We hope you understand that this is not a persecution of religion, but unavoidable safety measures for people in our city.”

An inspection of 225 small and medium-sized churches on March 13 and 14 by city officials found churchgoers not wearing masks, not maintaining social distance and barring officials from entering the church.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon also delivered a briefing Monday, mentioning that churches still holding services in person are sources of contamination.

“Over 30 percent of the churches in Seoul are still holding offline services. It is a reality that this is causing cluster infections. We once again ask strongly that churches convert to online service or refrain from holding services for a while,” said Mayor Park.

While most megachurches continue suspend offline services, holding online services instead, some megachurches holding offline services and smaller sized churches continuing to hold worship services and church retreats are emerging as sources of mass infection.

Thirty-four people were confirmed with COVID-19 in relation to Oncheon Church in Busan, where the first confirmed patient had attended a two-day church retreat with around 150 participants.

A similar case also occurred at Dongan Church in Seoul. Nine people have been confirmed, including six who attended a church retreat in which 123 people participated. One of those infected at the church went to an internet cafe after the retreat, causing another 24 people to be infected.

Saengmeyoungsoo Church in Gyeonggi Province also had 15 infected members as of Monday morning, after an infected employee from the Guro-gu call center attended the Sunday service on March 8.

Meanwhile, megasized Gwanglime Church, which has more than 100,000 members, decided to resume offline services on Sunday to much criticism from the community.

Yonsei Central Baptist Church, which has around 40,000 registered members, also has yet to cancel services, despite people living nearby putting up signs in protest.

By Lim Jang-won (