About 30 cars line a street of a residential neighborhood twice a week as church services take place in a single-family home. Inside, church attendants sit shoulder to shoulder and don’t wear masks.
That’s according to residents of the Bay Pointe neighborhood in Newark, Del., who say they’ve had enough. The residents have reported Ignition Church to New Castle County and the state, but they say they believe government entities aren’t acting quick enough.
Residents like Eric Grabowski say they’re concerned about the health and safety of the community.
“It’s almost the definition of a superspreader event,” Grabowski said.
At the beginning of December, Gov. John Carney placed tighter restrictions on businesses and personal gatherings as COVID-19 cases soared and health experts worried the holiday season could have devastating effects as people gathered at parties, restaurants, and bars, or retail stores. Mask wearing was required, and there were limits on the number of people allowed in an establishment or home.
But residents of Bay Pointe, a community of single-family homes of about 4,000 square feet, say Ignition Church continued to operate as it normally would.
The residents say they reached out to their local legislator, State Rep. Eric Morrison, who said he’s attempted to take the issue further by contacting county and state officials.
Morrison told WHYY News that he was shocked by what he saw when he visited the church to find out what was going on for himself. Morrison shared photos with WHYY showing a line of cars outside the residence, and congregants sitting very close to one another without wearing masks.
“People are packed into this home like sardines in folding chairs, side by side with no masks on whatsoever,” he said.
“I was floored. I was absolutely floored,” Morrison said. “They’re having 30, 40, 50 people in there twice a week, and all these people are going home to their families, they may be going to workplaces, they’re going grocery shopping, who knows where they’re going, especially since they obviously don’t take this virus seriously, so this has the potential to spread this virus.”
The father of Ignition Church Pastor Greg Tweddell, whom online records list as the owner of the home, died of COVID-19, according to an online obituary.
Heather Warren, deputy chief of the Health Systems Protection section of the state’s Division of Public Health, said she could not comment on Ignition Church because it is an “active case,” but she said that DPH is “working diligently to communicate with the church.”
When reached for comment, Pastor Greg Tweddell sent the following statement via email:
We are a church that loves the Lord Jesus Christ with everything that we are! In Hebrews 10:25, the Bible commands us to not neglect assembling together – even more as the day of Jesus’ return approaches. In our obedience to God’s plan of assembly, we build unity with Him and with each other as His children.
We are careful in our assembly, but I stand on the principle of personal choice and responsibility given us in God’s Word and in the Constitution. I am CONFIDENT that the Lord hears His children and will bring about His will as we are in obedience to Him.
There have been more than 4,000 complaints about businesses, restaurants, residents, and churches not following COVID-19 restrictions since March, Warren said.
More recently, most of the complaints have been about large retail establishments, like Target and Walmart, and mostly have been about stores not requiring customers to wear masks and maintain physical distance.
There is a step-by-step process to handling complaints for violating COVID-19 restrictions, Warren said. DPH only gets involved if it has received at least three or four complaints. Once the agency analyzes the situation, it either conducts a visit to the site or makes a phone call. DPH then educates the establishment about the COVID-19 restrictions. If the conditions don’t improve, DPH issues a warning letter first, and, if changes aren’t made, the business can be cited.
So far, DPH has cited 23 businesses or establishments for non-compliance.
“People are really pretty compliant,” Warren said. “We’re in almost daily communications with the corporations like Wawa, Target, and Food Lion for the corporations to meet Delaware standards throughout their stores.”
DPH also engages in conference calls with the City of Newark, the University of Delaware, and local police twice a week. Newark police and university police have responded to several residential complaints about parties on campus.
Prior to COVID, residents of Bay Pointe complained that the church was allegedly violating county code by conducting a business in the home for the past four years. There have also been complaints about the long line of cars on the streets, noise complaints, and reports of speeding.
“It’s been a concern with a lot of the folks in the neighborhood. We’ve talked about it for years, never had any luck, giving them warnings, and they do their thing and make it clear they’re going to continue doing it,” said a resident who asked to remain anonymous to keep the peace.
Grabowski echoed that sentiment.
“It’s been going on for years, but gradually over time it’s gotten worse. There’s anywhere from 25 to 30 cars parked along the street,” he said.
“It’s a closed residential neighborhood, it’s just not a place to have a church. It creates a real issue for driving in the neighborhood. They park up and down the corner, and when you leave you can’t see around the corner, it creates safety issues, and it creates issues getting in and out of the street,” Grabowski said. “The whole COVID thing compounds it, because they then go wherever else they go, and spread everything to everyone else.”
Since November, state Rep. Morrison and the residents of the neighborhood have reached out to the governor, the attorney general, the county executive, and the health department. They say police were dispatched to the residence a couple weeks ago, but that it doesn’t appear as if any action has been taken by county or state officials.
A member of the neighborhood’s voluntary maintenance board agreed to speak to WHYY on the condition that his name not be used, to avoid backlash.
“If we have a complaint, let’s just say somebody’s dog is going to the bathroom in somebody’s yard, we say, ‘OK, well you’re neighbors, you can settle it as neighbors.’ It’s almost like, ‘Can you be an adult about this?’” he said.
“This is an issue where we felt we needed to get involved, because we have guidelines the governor is suggesting people follow,” he added. “We have to make sacrifices to get through the pandemic, and I think this person should. We’re not trying to go against the church, we’re just looking at it as homeowners shouldn’t be allowing this many people in their house at this time, and they’re running a business out of their house and we’re a deed-restricted community.”
He said when he contacted DPH, he was told it’s difficult to enforce rules against a church. He said he believes enforcement isn’t being applied equally.
“If this was a business that was in code violation, the county or the state would have no problem issuing a fine,” he said. “I think they’re afraid to go after this because this is a church. The owner of the house is in violation of county code, it’s no different than me trying to build an addition onto my house and not getting it inspected.”
Although DPH’s Warren could not comment on the specific church, she said a house of worship is counted as any other establishment would be.
“Keep your due diligence, we are not shying away from any complaints. If you see something that makes you feel uncomfortable, use the HSP contact line to tell us about it,” Warren said.
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