Mask wearing and social distancing were “welcomed” but not required at a Bible study group linked to a COVID-19 cluster, according to the pastor who led the study group.
The Martha’s Vineyard boards of health first reported a cluster of cases linked to the Bible study group in their expanded weekly report on Dec. 11. Since then, the cluster has grown to 11 cases — five of whom were study group participants, and six of whom are family and in the household of the participants. The cluster was not linked to any one particular church, but rather is a private, in-person group.
Jim Osborn, a part-time independent contractor for The Times who attended several of the weekly study groups at homes in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, and tested positive for COVID-19, said that mask wearing was not required by study group leader the Rev. Dan Davey, an assistant pastor at the New Testament Church of Cedarville in Plymouth.
Davey “never wore a mask,” Osborn said. “He sort of gave us the impression that because it was a Bible study, we were under God’s protection during the Bible study, and I guess we all made that same false assumption.”
The study group consisted of 12 members, according to Osborn, and would meet on Friday evenings for dinner and then have Bible study.
The Bible study cluster is the third cluster of COVID-19 cases reported on Martha’s Vineyard. The first was linked to an October wedding, resulting in eight cases (and another two off-Island), and the second was at Cronig’s Market, resulting in 19 cases.
Speaking to The Times by phone, Davey said the group met “regularly,” beginning in the summer, and would meet outside, but moved inside when the weather got colder. He said the last Bible study group he led on the Island was in early December, and the group won’t be meeting in the future.
Davey confirmed that mask wearing and social distancing were not required at the study groups, but he said he gave people the freedom to decide what they wanted to do.
“I said, Yeah, you’re welcome to wear masks, but that’s a choice each person makes,” Davey said. “We were sitting out on a deck, so everyone was sitting where they chose to sit.”
He denied telling study group attendees that God would protect them.
“I don’t recall ever saying, ‘God’s going to protect you, don’t worry about it,’” Davey said. “But I live my life, frankly, that God’s going to take care of me regardless. There were a lot of other viruses before COVID-19 came along, and I’m sure there’s more to come.”
Osborn said he and his wife, Carol, were two of the first people to test positive for the virus. The only symptoms Osborn had were a minor loss of smell and a major loss of appetite. His wife had more persistent symptoms, such as a fever, cough, and sore throat.
“One thing that’s been good about being on the Island is that there’s been a [contact tracer] that kept calling to make sure everything was OK,” Osborn said. “She wanted to make sure that nobody was falling through the cracks.”
Davey took issue with contact tracing in general. “I think contact tracing is a very inexact science,” Davey said. “To trace it to any particular gathering of any kind, when you have people who are living their lives out there in public doing a lot of other things as well, I think that’s pretty inexact to nail that down to any one particular place.”
Davey reiterated that mask wearing was optional at the study groups. “They could wear masks if they chose, but they have the option, and I still feel like that is kind of the case across the country, that people still have a choice to make of what they’re going to do with their own personal lives, how they’re going to handle things.”
He was also skeptical of the legitimacy of mask wearing. “The science on mask wearing is very inexact. There’s a lot of discussion and debate back and forth whether that even makes a difference,” Davey said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 is transmitted predominantly by respiratory droplets when people cough, sneeze, sing, talk, or breathe, and cloth face masks reduce the chance of transmission.
On Nov. 6, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an order requiring masks be worn indoors and outdoors in all public places, regardless of social distancing.
Davey, who said he has not tested positive for COVID-19, stressed that while the more than 300,000 deaths from COVID-19 should not be discounted, the number should be put in perspective with those who have died from the flu.
According to the CDC, COVID-19 and the flu cause several of the same symptoms, such as fever, cough, sore throat, and fatigue. One of the key differences is that the flu can cause mild to severe symptoms, while COVID-19 “seems to cause more serious illnesses in some people.”
The CDC estimates there were 24,000 to 62,000 flu deaths between Oct 1, 2019, and April 4, 2020.
Davey said the group is not meeting anymore due to the holidays and group members traveling, not because of the cluster of cases.
Osborn is now attending a Bible study group via Zoom, and has been cleared by his doctor to return to work after following hospital guidelines of quarantine, which are in line with the CDC.
“It had been going on for so many weeks,” Osborn said. “It sort of reinforced the idea that God’s protection must be over this Bible study, because week after week after week, no masks, nobody was getting sick, until this one day.”