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COVID-19 cases double at Northern California religious school as leader slams masks

The exterior of Bethel Church is seen in March in Redding.
Coronavirus infections linked to an evangelical college affiliated with Redding-based Bethel Church have doubled in the last week. A church leader has called masks “worthless.”
(Mike Chapman / Record Searchlight via AP)

COVID-19 cases linked to a Northern California evangelical college have doubled over the last week as the school attracts attention on social media for a video by a church leader criticizing masks as “worthless” and mocking businesses that enforce wearing face coverings.

Shasta County health officials said 274 cases in the county had been tied to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry in the city of Redding, KRCR-TV reported. That number includes 137 cases reported last week.

Shasta County currently has the highest rate of new cases of any California county, with a new-case rate of 19 cases per day per 100,000 people, compared with 6.8 per 100,000 for the state overall.

Health officials have said the outbreak among students and staff at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry has driven the county’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases, which led state officials last week to restore more restrictions on restaurants, bars and other businesses there.

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A handful of counties advanced on the state’s COVID-19 reopening measuring stick, including Ventura County, the fourth county in Southern California to expand its reopening.

The Bethel school is affiliated with Bethel Church, a Redding-based evangelical megachurch.

A pastor associated with the church has been criticized for holding large rallies across the U.S. in defiance of local health orders . The rallies have drawn thousands of participants. Most don’t wear face masks or practice social distancing.

The update in increased cases came as social media users shared and commented on a since-deleted Instagram video posted by Beni Johnson, one of the church’s senior leaders.

In the video, Johnson said she was visiting “a cute little town over on the coast” and standing in line to buy some food without wearing a mask.

“There is way too much security in a freaking mask that doesn’t even work,” Johnson says in the video.

She said people in the line moved away from her, and when she got to the counter to order, she was told she had to wear a mask, even though she had pulled her sweatshirt over her mouth.

“If you’ll do scientific research, these masks are worthless,“ she said, adding that she had planned to shop in the town. “But now we won’t be shopping and giving them any money because you have to wear a stupid freaking mask that doesn’t work.”

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Medical experts agree that wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, practicing social distancing and thoroughly washing one’s hands are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

In a statement about Johnson’s comments, Bethel communications director Aaron Tesauro said: “We value the freedom of every person to express their personal opinions,” KRCR-TV reported.

Shasta County is grappling with a surge in coronavirus cases, many tied to an evangelical college where over 120 students and staff have tested positive.

After the outbreak was first reported last week, the school said it took several measures to curb the spread of infection, including switching to online instruction and asking its 1,600-student body to self-quarantine. The school said that it required face coverings and social distancing all the time, with daily temperature checks taken when people enter the school.

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On its website, the school describes itself as “a ministry training center” that is not an accredited university. It says students “students embrace their royal identity, learn the values of the kingdom, and walk in the authority and power of the King.”


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