SANTA FE, Argentina – A Catholic priest is being investigated by civil authorities in Argentina for allegedly telling the faithful attending a Mass to remove their facemasks, which are legally required as part of the efforts to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

According to reports, during a Sept. 8 Mass marking the patronal feast day in parish of the Nativity of Mary in the small city of Justiniano Posse, several of the health and safety protocols were broken — in addition to telling parishioners to not use facemasks, the priest allowed more people into the church than  the 50 percent of capacity mandated by the government.

Civil authorities are investigating if, in fact, the protocols were broken, leading to at least 20 people testing positive for the coronavirus that’s killed over 12,000 people in Argentina. In addition, another 1,000 people who were in direct contact with those who tested positive are now required to self-isolate, nearly 10 percent of the town’s 11,000 people.

The Diocese of Villa Maria released a statement on Sept. 17 supporting the investigation to determine if there are “personal responsibilities” from the priest in question.

In the statement, the church also says that the diocese and the parishes have modify religious events that are open to the public to guarantee that they fulfill the protocols mandated by civil authorities.

Faithful who attended the Mass have said that it was the priest who told those present to remove the facemask because those who used them are “fearful, and one should not fear death, because those who die go earlier to God.”

He also reportedly said that the virus would not “enter the house of God.”

The municipality hadn’t seen any cases since March, when a handful of travelers had tested positive.

Mayor Gerardo Zuin told local media that even though he couldn’t confirm the allegations against the priest, he was “almost certain that he said that because I know him.”

Papers also claim that the priest is known for being “against vaccine and quarantine,” a sentiment he expressed on his Facebook profile, which has been deleted since the scandal broke.

“I found out about this case through comments from people,” the mayor said. “From city hall we had even reached out to the parish, to guarantee that the protocol was respected.” Zuin also said that the “imprudence” from the priest and the faithful had begun before Sept. 8, noting that on the day of the Marian celebration, there were people who already had symptoms.

Oscar Gomez, the director of the local hospital, told the TV news program Arriba Cordoba that several other people from Justiniano Posse were waiting the results of COVID-19 testing. However, he noted that the fault for the spread isn’t the priest’s alone.

“I cannot blame anyone. This is a matter of social responsibility and individual one,” he said. “There was a social responsibility for following the prevention measures, even more so in enclosed places.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma