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Church in Fitchburg now tied to more than 200 COVID-19 cases, public health director confirms

Crossroads Community Church is one epicenter of a COVID-19 outbreak in Fitchburg.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

More than 200 confirmed coronavirus infections have been traced to Crossroads Community Church in Fitchburg, the city’s health department announced Friday, up from nearly 150 cases as of Oct. 31.

The Fitchburg Health Department has also identified more than 200 contacts of those confirmed cases.

“Confirmed cases and contacts have affected over 75 businesses and 22 jurisdictions,” according to a press release from Stephen Curry, the city’s director of public health, and more than 80 percent of the COVID-19 infections are now symptomatic.

Now the Fitchburg Health Department “is exploring moving backwards” in Governor Charlie Baker’s phased reopening plan to stem the spread of COVID-19, the release said. The church at the epicenter of the outbreak will remain closed until further notice.

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Crossroads Community Church has been closed since Oct. 21, when the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards issued a written warning to the church for flouting the state’s COVID-19 health protocols after complaints emerged about safety violations. Two days later, the church acknowledged in an email to the congregation that “multiple people from Crossroads” had tested positive for the virus.

The Fitchburg church broke its silence publicly for the first time in almost two weeks Thursday night, issuing a statement on its Facebook page that seemed to dispute its connection to the outbreak. The statement was posted shortly after The Boston Globe published a story on the burgeoning number of COVID-19 cases tied to the church.

In the Facebook post, the church took issue with Fitchburg administrators and the board of health, calling their statements “hurtful” and “irresponsible.”

“We at Crossroads are very disappointed that the City and the Board of Health would rush to judgment. They would prefer to assess blame rather than work together for the greatest good,” the Facebook post said. “Their statements were hurtful, irresponsible, and not reflective of the spirit of cooperation that has been the relationship between the city and Crossroads for years. Attributing the COVID outbreak within the City of Fitchburg to Crossroads Community Church is unfair and a distortion of the facts.”

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The statement did not cite any evidence to contradict the number of cases that have been tied to the church. Crossroads’ lead pastor, Bryan Tomes, has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the Globe.

More than 40 additional COVID-19 cases in Fitchburg have been linked to local hockey leagues, according to Curry.

Photos and videos on Crossroads' Facebook page show little or no distancing or mask-wearing during services in the weeks prior to the church’s closure. Under the state’s safety standards, places of worship are required to operate at reduced capacity, and all staffers and worshippers must wear face coverings, with exceptions for people with medical conditions and celebrants conducting services at a distance.

As of Thursday morning, the city of Fitchburg has confirmed 1,220 cases of coronavirus since March 1, and 87 residents have died. The city has 203 confirmed active cases under isolation orders.

Crossroads' statement triggered a backlash from many commenters on Facebook, several of whom faulted the church for failing to take responsibility for the outbreak.

“It does make me upset especially because they didn’t have any sympathy for people who have gotten sick,” said Alyza Batista, 21, a licensed nursing assistant. “[The church’s statement] was kind of just trying to push the blame on somebody else.”

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Three of Batista’s relatives — her grandmother, aunt and great-aunt — have recently fallen ill from COVID-19, and she believes they were exposed through the church. Her aunt and great-aunt are both congregants, she said. In late October, her grandmother and great-aunt were hospitalized with the virus.

“My family just can’t move on,” Batista added. “We don’t know where we’re going to be in a month or two...So for [Crossroads] to move on and just forget about everything, is just kind of wrong in my mind.”

Crossroads is a popular pentecostal church, drawing as many as 200 worshippers to Sunday services, a former congregant told the Globe. The person left the church when news of the outbreak surfaced and asked that their name not be used, fearing retribution.

Although face masks and hand-sanitizer were offered on a table in the front of the sanctuary, no one on Crossroads’ staff enforced distancing or mask-wearing, the former congregant said. As a result, “very few people” wore face-coverings or kept their distance during services, the person said.

The former congregant believes Crossroads' leadership kept worshippers in the dark about coronavirus infections linked to the church.

“There’s a selfishness in this and a lot of arrogance that could have been avoided,” the former congregant said. “If you really are who you say you are and you really do care, then you will do everything you can to prove that without being asked.”

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Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.