By The Washington Post
Meagan Flynn, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Michelle Boorstein
In fact, no one was wearing masks at Little Lambs Christian Dayschool, the day care at Fairlawn Christian Academy in Radford, according to Virginia Department of Health records.
But on Monday, Pastor Stephen Phillips sent a memo to parents, telling them that there was nothing to be worried about - and that they shouldn't trust federal health authorities.
"Don't allow yourself to be controlled and manipulated by media hype and government propaganda," the pastor wrote, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post and which is also referenced in state records. "Please do your own research!"
Now, after parents and even one employee's boyfriend complained to the state health department, Phillips's apparent refusal to comply with virus restrictions has led to swift consequences.
Following an immediate investigation, the state suspended Little Lambs Christian Dayschool's food-service permit, which Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, said is the only regulatory authority health officials have over establishments that flout coronavirus restrictions.
The state took this step only after Phillips told investigators he would refuse to follow public health guidelines. The investigation unfolded this week as Virginia and much of the nation are seeing record surges in coronavirus cases, while hospitals are preparing for influxes of patients.
All Phillips has to do is agree to follow the rules to get his permit back, the state said - but in another letter to parents he made clear he does not intend to do so. Instead, he said that the state shut down his entire business, including Fairlawn Christian Academy, and that parents should "convey their indignation to the Montgomery County Health Department and Governor Ralph Northam."
"Because we have refused to adopt state mandated Covid guidelines, we have had our license to do business rescinded," Phillips wrote in a letter provided to The Post by a parent. He added: "If you are not already aware, the entire Covid pandemic has been a hoax to establish an the anti-Christ Kingdom on earth."
Phillips and other staff members at Fairlawn Christian Academy did not respond to multiple requests for comment Thursday.
Bobby Parker, a spokesman for the state health department, said Phillips's claim that the state shuttered the school and day care is a misrepresentation of the department's actions. Only the day care's food permit is temporarily suspended - but will be restored if Phillips complies with restrictions.
The food permit "is not permanently cast aside," he said. "There is an opportunity for it to be restored if there's a demonstration of compliance" with Northam's executive orders requiring masks and social distancing within businesses.
Parker said he was not aware of any other legal actions the state was taking against the business that could lead to it being shut down. The Virginia Department of Social Services, which oversees child-care facilities, could not be reached for comment Thursday evening. Online DSS records show Little Lambs day care is exempt from licensing because it is a religious facility. It has a capacity of 95 kids, ages 1 month old to under 13.
The decision by Phillips and his wife, Patrice Phillips, to close both the day care and Christian school has left parents scrambling to find new schooling and child-care options.
As a single mom, Chelsea Sewell, 28, was devastated to learn that the school was closing. Her 6-year-old daughter Marlee had been part of the day care since she was 2 and started attending the Christian school this year to avoid virtual learning in the public school system.
Sewell said she didn't think it was a health risk to put her daughter in school, but she does believe covid-19 is "100 percent real."
"This letter is just out of hand," she said. "I do understand that Pastor Steve is upset about the school closing, but he didn't need to go that extreme."
According to health department records, at least three people complained to the state after Phillips sent a memo explaining a teacher tested positive while also telling them not to trust federal health authorities. One said his girlfriend, an employee, was specifically told not to wear a mask.
"Since the management believe COVID-19 to be some sort of government conspiracy, they failed to take this seriously," another person wrote to the health department in an email, attaching Phillips's initial letter.
Phillips and his wife refused to cooperate with investigators who visited the school two days later, even denying that an unmasked teacher tested positive after investigators already confirmed that with the teacher herself.
Another woman who complained, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution against her family, told The Post her sister's children attended the school, and after her sister showed her the school's initial letter to parents, she was "mortified." Her niece has asthma, she said. She felt like she had to do something.
"I'm a health-care worker," she said. "I am having to protect myself on a daily basis. . . . It's not only that they're not taking precautions, but you know someone tested positive and you're just going on business as usual? You're notifying the parents and telling them, don't worry about this, it's a hoax?"
Her sister, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, told The Post that she believed her kids were safe because classroom capacity at Fairlawn Christian Academy was limited to fewer than 10 kids.
She and Sewell said that two months ago, the school shut down for seven days after a student tested positive for the coronavirus, leading them to believe the school was taking precautions.
Sewell said the pastor telling everyone that coronavirus is a "LIE straight from hell" was especially offensive. She knows people, like her best friend's grandfather, who died of covid-19.
"How do you explain to your best friend that the pastor of this school thought this whole coronavirus was a hoax?" she said. "It's just sad."