Chatham Co. Board of Elections moves polling site following COVID-19 ‘outbreak’ at church

Chatham Co. Board of Elections moves polling site following COVID-19 ‘outbreak’ at church

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A Savannah church is under investigation by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

According to the governor’s office, The Savannah Holy Church of God on Little Neck Road has nine confirmed COVID-19 cases.

What has been described as an outbreak by the church’s pastor, has led the Chatham County Board of Elections to move a polling site normally at the church to a different site for the upcoming Aug. 11 runoff election.

Over the past few weeks, the Chatham County Board of Elections has had to make some polling location adjustments for the upcoming runoff election.

The Savannah Holy Church of God on Little Neck Road is one polling place being moved. It wasn’t until WTOC requested the email exchange between the Board of Elections and the church’s head pastor that we learned why.

On July 22, the Board of Elections offered to have a cleaning company sanitize the area of the church used for a polling location ahead of the Aug. 11 runoff. Holy Church of God Pastor Ryan Ralston wrote back they had an outbreak of confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Over the next five days, Ralston and the elections office exchanged emails regarding polling site preps.

But on July 27, Pastor Ralston wrote an email, saying using the cleaning company before and after the election would be a definite must. He went on to say he thought it would be better to move voting to another location altogether for the runoff election.

Ralston said the outbreak of COVID-19 in his church happened in June, and the church had been closed since. Ralston added two of their members recently passed away after being hospitalized.

The elections office responded saying the cleaning should address any of his concerns and make for a safe environment, emphasizing moving to a new site would be difficult with the runoff just weeks away. Ultimately, the polling place was moved.

In recent weeks, WTOC has heard from several people concerned about functions they said were held at the church in late June, the same time the head pastor reported the outbreak happened to the elections office. One man said the church, which also operates a school on campus, held a graduation ceremony in late June.

WTOC spoke with one woman whose child attended the school, Butler Christian Academy. She says after doing some digging and finding out about the increasing COVID-19 cases at the church, she opted to pull her child out of the program.

“That’s when my husband and I decided that this maybe was not a good fit just because there had been no communication on how serious the outbreak of COVID was at the church,” said the parent, who didn’t want to be identified.

WTOC reached out to Ralston for comment and have yet to hear back. Ralston is also the principal of Butler Christian Academy.

According to the Coastal Health District’s director, community transmission of the virus is still an issue in Chatham County. And the odds of spreading the virus only get better when large groups of people gather indoors.

“We know from experience now that anytime people gather together, particularly if they are indoors in a room anywhere that may not be particularly well ventilated or turning over the air very quickly, that there is an increased risk for transmission,” said Coastal Health District Director Dr. Lawton Davis.

Again, the Department of Public Health has identified nine confirmed COVID-19 cases at the Savannah Holy Church of God, and that investigation is ongoing.

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