ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. — Last October, the St. Joseph County Health Department told churches they should “pivot” to virtual services for the next five and a half months, citing a so-called cluster study that now has been revealed to be practically bogus.
A handful of cases appeared at five churches, over three weeks time, according to information obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. The majority of the churches had three cases each. The largest church cluster was five cases — over two separate weekends, at a church that was serving up to 400 people. For a full copy of the study, see below.
Despite barely any evidence of coronavirus spread among churches, the health department wrote a letter urging all faith communities in the county to worship online only. The letter came out about a month after a so-called clusters occurred. St. Joseph County, incidentally, is home to about 272,000 people.
(Curiously, a FOIA request seeking emails referencing religion and/or church turned up no emails by Health Officer Robert Einterz or Deputy Health Officer Mark Fox ever discussing the idea of issuing a church advisory, nonetheless how one should be crafted. It is as if their October 13, 2020 letter to church community leaders simply appeared already written, complete with the health officers’ signatures.)
Even before the contents of the inconclusive study were known publicly, Attorney General Curtis Hill called out the health department for overreach based on insufficient evidence. He also noted the intimidating tone of the letter, which said health officers would be “compelled to respond to any complaints we receive regarding safety concerns” from churches that didn’t close down.
Your decision to write a threatening letter despite a “not conclusive” study is a surprising and disappointing abuse of your power as county health officials. Here in Indiana, we do not govern by decrees from county officials that strip individual liberty in such a manner. Unless you have actual evidence justifying the need to target churches for closure — i.e. something other than the “not conclusive” study your letter cites, I advise you to cease from threatening congregations who do not comply with your demands or my office will be “compelled to act.” (October 23,2020)
Einterz wrote about Hill’s letter to Jeff Rea, President and CEO of the South Bend Regional Chamber. Rea also served a member of Unified Command, a group of local officials guiding the corona virus response.
Jeff, Let’s discuss this letter from Curtis. His threatening tone—wrapped in the language of liberty—is reprehensible and an abuse of power. His deliberate misreading of Mark’s and my recommendations is curious. A likely conclusion is that he is pandering to his political base and abnegating his duty to the public at the expense of the health of the public. Bob (October 23,2020)
Despite Hill’s letter, Einterz did not issue a retraction.
The so-called cluster study came about upon the request of Einterz, who had asked the Indiana State Department of Health to help him identify any possible sources of virus spread. He sent the following email to Pam Pontones, deputy state health commissioner for the Indiana State Department of Health:
Regarding the contact tracing in St. Joe County, if your team can “drill” down on the ISDH data to determine where exposures leading to infections are occurring in SJC, that would be very helpful. I am being pressed by public officials and owners of bars to “prove” which densely packed social settings are contributing to spread of the virus. (Oct 7, 2020)(Incidentally, the state uncovered no known clusters at bars, parties, bowling allies or festivals. The only other places linked to a practically insignificant number of cases were a high school volleyball game, two funeral services and two University of Notre Dame football games.)
Einterz’s talk of being under public pressure to prove where cases were coming from most likely came out of his meetings with Unified Command. Einterz was in the middle of discussions with local leaders, trying to convince them that the health department should make another move to combat the rise in Corona virus hospitalizations. He mentioned such ideas as rolling back the state’s opening plan one or two stages, limiting social gatherings. or closing churches and schools. Einterz apparently did not make a very convincing argument, because the only decision that came out of Unified Command was non-binding advice to limit social gatherings to groups of 10.
The letter from Einterz and Fox advising churches to close came almost a week after Unified Command failed to implement any major community coronavirus restrictions. The idea of closing churches, however, had been floated about six weeks earlier. In a response about a local megachurch disregarding mask orders, Einterz wrote to Fox:
Just noticed that you were not copied on the below concern…do you know anyone who attends Granger Community Church?…not sure why we are focusing just on bars…perhaps (South Bend Mayor James) Mueller was correct all along about closing churches! (August 31,2020)