CENTRAL, La. -- Hundreds of worshippers attended services at a Louisiana church on Sunday, flouting a ban on large gatherings, angering neighbors and seemingly turning a deaf ear to their governor, who once again warned that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed with new cases of the coronavirus.
An estimated 500 people of all ages filed inside the mustard-yellow and beige Life Tabernacle church in Central, a city of nearly 29,000 outside Baton Rouge.
Assistant ministers and worshippers who stood outside the front doors and in the parking lot of Life Tabernacle told news reporters to leave, saying cameras would not be allowed on the property and they had been told not to talk to the news media. They went inside without further comment.
Across the street, Paul Quinn and other neighbors took pains to stay 6 feet (2 meters) apart from each other as they stood in a driveway and commented on their opposition to the services being held.
“Other congregations are using the internet, Skype, and other safe ways to congregate. Why can’t they? What makes them so special?" Quinn asked. "I wish state police would come out and do something. ... If they get out of church and go to the grocery store, it’s a serious health hazard. They don’t know how many people they’re affecting, and they don’t seem to care. That’s a problem.”
Briefly commenting Sunday in the church's parking lot, Timothy Spell, father of Pastor Tony Spell, said Life Tabernacle has a right to assembly, is not forcing anyone to attend services, is not breaking any laws and will continue to hold services at the church.
More than 3,500 Louisiana residents have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, and more than 150 of them have died, according to state figures released Sunday. Deaths included that of the first federal prison inmate, a man with “serious preexisting conditions” who was being held in Oakdale, Lousiana, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said Saturday.
The virus has killed seven of more than 160 people diagnosed with the disease in East Baton Rouge Parish, where the church is located, according to state figures.
People who violate the ban are being selfish and “grossly irresponsible,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said Sunday afternoon in New Orleans. They "take the time and attention of first responders and make it much more likely that this disease will continue to spread,” he said.
In New Orleans, police broke up a “funeral repast” of about 100 people Saturday afternoon, issuing a warrant for a 28-year-old man who refused to shut it down and giving the band leader a summons, a news release said. Several complaints about that event were among more than 300 received in the past week about violations of a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said in a separate statement.
More than 1,300 of the COVID-19 diagnoses and 73 of the deaths have been in New Orleans, and Edwards repeated on Sunday's national news talk shows what he's been saying for days: The city's hospitals are likely to run out of ventilators by April 4 and beds by April 10.
New Orleans' tourist economy has also been hit hard, with hotels, restaurants, bars, convention centers and other businesses closed.
Dwindling food banks for local residents got a boost when the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed on Friday to let them use about 4 million pounds (1.8 million kilograms) of stockpiled federal emergency supplies, The Times-Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate reported. New Orleans leaders had been asking for about a week before the USDA granted the waivers.
“We told them tens of thousands of people have been laid off in the hospitality industry, and they need food now,” City Councilwoman Helena Moreno said. “Then they kind of got it.”
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.