COEUR D’ALENE — Idaho pastor and state Rep. Tim Remington continues to hold in-person church services despite multiple church members testing positive for COVID-19 and a three-week stay at home order from the governor.
Remington is the senior pastor at The Altar church in Coeur d’Alene, where he was shot in 2016, one day after praying with then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
“Do you understand that this is a gimmick? It’s a test,” Remington said in his sermon last Sunday. “I want to pass the test, so as for me and my house we’re going to serve the Lord.”
Remington and The Altar’s board did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
During his sermon, Remington told congregants that two church members tested positive for coronavirus after a mission trip in the Dominican Republic. Remington himself was in contact with the pair.
“Both of them had the coronavirus,” Remington said. “(One) had it pretty bad. Some of us have been exposed because we hugged (the person) when (they) first got here two weeks ago.”
Last Sunday’s service was streamed live, but about 45 people attended in person, Remington told KREM 2.
On the video now posted to The Altar’s YouTube page, a handful of attendees are visible sitting nearby each other. The social distancing guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say people should stay 6 feet apart to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Altar’s board posted a statement on the church’s website detailing how it hoped people would take advantage of online services, which help bring the church “more in compliance” with public health regulations.
Gov. Brad Little signed his stay-at home-order on March 25, with cases in Idaho rising steadily ever since. As of Wednesday evening, there were 669 reported cases and nine deaths.
The Panhandle Health District suggested churches and other groups shift to gathering online only.
“A lot of businesses and organizations, like churches, they’ve moved to more of a virtual or online service,” said spokesman Katherine Hoyer. “That would be our first suggestion.”
Hoyer said moving things online doesn’t mean people can’t help each other out in their time of need. She suggested dropping of supplies without contacting the recipient or calling to check in with family and friends.
For elderly people who may not be accustomed to relying so much on technology, Hoyer suggested they call a neighbor, friend or family member for help.
Panhandle Health has received dozens of calls reporting gatherings and people not in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
“It’s not a punishable offense,” Hoyer said. “There’s no fine or crime attached to it.”
However, Hoyer emphasized that the health care system would become extremely strained without strict social distancing.
“If nobody took any action, we would be in a dire state of need,” Hoyer said.
Little appointed Remington to the state Legislature earlier this year. He has worked in drug recovery in North Idaho for decades.
During his sermons, Remington isn’t afraid to mention his position as a legislator or politics in general.
“Many of our rights were just taken out from underneath of us,” Remington said of the response to coronavirus. “They have just showed everybody in this nation how because of a flu, OK, they can completely take away all your First Amendment rights.”
Remington acknowledged that the decision to defy public health advice and hold in-person services had people worried.
“We’ve had a lot of people that have worried about us,” Remington said.
Holding services did lead to backlash. On Tuesday, the church’s board posted a statement on Facebook.
“Over the past few days, we have received a lot of feedback from the people in our community about allowing some to worship on Sundays,” the statement read. “Some have been supportive, and others have been upset. We understand and respect both sides.”
The statement addressed a recent news report that “claimed we did not care about Gov. Little’s stay-at-home order,” saying that the services had a significant reduction in attendance and that the governor’s office “specifically told us that the Church is essential in this time.”
The governor’s website says that clergy and church members may assemble to stream or record religious services but only with the minimum number of individuals necessary while also following social distancing requirements.
“I don’t want to be foolish with all this,” Remington said. “When we leave here, we need to find some of these people that need help and we need to go help them.”
The Altar plans to hold in-person church services this weekend, according to a recent Facebook post.