Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte, W.Va., had resumed Sunday services, with masks optional, 10 days before congregants began to fall ill in early June. There have been at least 51 confirmed cases and three deaths tied to the church, local health officials said.
Charles Hiser, 82, was the first of three churchgoers to die after contracting the virus.
His daughter, Libby Morgan, said her father had lived alone and had spent the last few months cooped up at home to stay safe. She brought him groceries and talked to him regularly on the phone so he was not lonely. But Mr. Hiser missed going to Graystone Baptist, where he had attended services for 30 years or so, his daughter said. So as soon as regular services resumed at the end of May, he went right back, eschewing a mask.
Within two weeks, he had tested positive for the virus.
“I felt like, gosh, I was thinking he’d be safe there,” Ms. Morgan said. “You know, you’re in church. Just like a child that goes to school is supposed to feel safe.”
The church is now reopened, again, after a two-week closure.
There were just six recorded cases of the coronavirus in Union County, in rural northeastern Oregon, when Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church announced its reopening on May 22 in an Instagram post that also cited Mr. Trump’s remarks about reopening churches.
Now, the county has recorded 356 cases, many of them traced to the church.
The outbreak is thought to have been seeded by a wedding there, which drew attendees from out of town, said Dan Satterwhite, a pastor at an affiliated Lighthouse Church in the neighboring town of Pendleton. The pastor of the Island City church contracted the virus, and his wife was hospitalized, Mr. Satterwhite said.
In his own church, Mr. Satterwhite said, congregants were social distancing and mostly wearing masks. He had initially livestreamed services on Facebook, but some congregants begged to return to church and others did not have reliable internet access.
“I am trying to do the right thing. I know a lot of people don’t feel this way, but those that do feel that church is essential,” Mr. Satterwhite said. “There’s more to be considered there than just the physical health, there’s also the spiritual health.”