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Pastor dies of COVID-19 weeks after Fontana megachurch reopened for indoor services

A man and woman hold hands and pray among plastic-covered chairs in a church.
Donald and Angie Autrey of Rancho Cucamonga pray before services begin at the reopening of the Water of Life Community Church during the COVID-19 pandemic on May 30, 2020, in Fontana.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

An associate pastor for a megachurch in San Bernardino County died of COVID-19 about a month after the facility reopened indoor services.

Bob Bryant of the Water of Life Community Church in Fontana tested positive for the coronavirus in November and soon developed an aggressive pneumonia in his lungs, according to a post on the church’s Facebook site. He then suffered a heart attack. He ultimately was placed on a ventilator and died Monday. He was 58.

Bryant was a pastor in the church’s benevolence department, which provides financial assistance for people in need, said Susan DePaola, executive assistant to the senior pastor.

Bryant became sick while on vacation and did not return to the church once he showed symptoms in November. DePaola said she was not sure when Bryant was last at the church. It can generally take up to 14 days after a person is exposed to the coronavirus to begin showing signs of illness.

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A state health order does not permit churches to hold indoor services in counties in the state’s most restrictive, or purple, tier in its reopening framework, which includes San Bernardino County. Only outdoor services are permitted in those counties.

San Bernardino County has been among the hardest-hit regions in the state; in the last week, it has reported one of the highest rates of coronavirus infections among California’s 58 counties. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county has quadrupled in the past month, from 217 on Oct. 26 to 883 on Tuesday.

Following California’s original stay-at-home order imposed in March, the state allowed houses of worship to reopen in late May with limited indoor capacity. But after a surge in cases in the late spring and early summer, state officials closed indoor operations of churches in mid-July in the hardest-hit counties. Water of Life Community Church defied that order, however, and reopened five weeks ago.

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DePaola said county officials knew the church was holding services indoors. “The county is aware we are meeting inside,” she said. “We’re not trying to break rules. They know what we’re doing.”

David Wert, a spokesman for San Bernardino County, said the county received a complaint on Nov. 16 that the church was conducting indoor services in violation of the state order. The county sent the church a letter on Monday asking it to comply with the order.

Wert said the county conducts an outbreak investigation when it learns of at least three cases linked to a facility within 14 days. Officials are not aware of other coronavirus cases linked to the church.

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The church’s senior pastor, Dan Carroll, in a Times article in May said he hosted a forum among leaders of hundreds of churches who were determined to reopen in defiance of California’s health order at the time.

On its website, the church says its weekend attendance is about 7,000. It was unclear how much in-person attendance has changed since the church reopened for indoor services on Oct. 31, which it announced on its Facebook page.

“This weekend, Oct. 31st/Nov. 1st, we are moving our church services back to inside the Worship Center AND returning back to our traditional service times. Social distancing will be followed and face masks are required,” the post said. “We will still have seating available outside, as long as the weather permits, for those that are not comfortable with sitting inside.”

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Bryant, known as Pastor Bob, had been with the church since he met the senior pastor about 18 years ago when he was a truck driver delivering furniture, DePaola said. He was hired as a youth pastor and later became the associate pastor in the benevolence department.

Bryant was able to help “thousands of people, by helping them financially and spiritually praying over them,” DePaola said.

“And Bob was a really big presence: He had the biggest heart of anyone you would ever meet. If you were in a room full of hundreds of people, he had the ability to make you feel like you were the most special person in the room,” she said. “He was an encourager and an uplifter and just always had a smile.”

Bryant is survived by his wife, Lori; children Missy, Jacob, Jordan and Josh; and several grandchildren.

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A memorial service is scheduled for Monday both inside and outdoors. It will be livestreamed and open for in-person attendance.

“Please note, if you will be joining us in person, social distancing will be practiced and face masks are required at all times while on campus,” the church’s website said.

Funerals are permitted only outdoors in San Bernardino County, according to the state health order.


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