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California

As a few churches challenge stay-at-home order, fears of more coronavirus outbreaks

Coronavirus
The coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, shown in purple, infects a cell, colored in green.
(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

For the most part, religious institutions have been rigorously following California’s stay-at-home rules, canceling services and curtailing in-person contact.

But several incidents over the last few weeks have sparked concerns from health officials, including some churches that have reopened in violation of the rules. Other groups have launched legal challenges to the rules, saying they violate freedom or religion. Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had the right to ban church assemblies in the interest of public health during the coronavirus outbreak.

Public health officials in Butte County issued a strongly worded warning after a person who attended an in-person religious service on Mother’s Day tested positive for the coronavirus. That organization held the service despite county rules, exposing the entire congregation to the virus, officials said.

The person received a positive test result the day after the service, which had more than 180 attendees, officials said. Officials were working to notify all those who attended and obtain testing for them.

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The pastor, Mike Jacobsen of Palermo Bible Family Church, spoke out on social media about his decision to hold the service, saying that he would “never with knowledge put anyone in harms way.”

“For 7 weeks we have been kept out of our church and away from our church family,” Jacobsen wrote in the post, which has since been deleted. “I am fully aware that some people may not understand that for our church it is essential to be together in fellowship.”

Reached by phone Sunday night, Jacobsen confirmed that his church was the site of possible contagion, but declined to immediately comment on the situation, saying he needed some time to think about it.

Meanwhile, a livestreamed Mother’s Day church service in Northern California is being blamed for a cluster of coronavirus cases in Mendocino and Lake counties.

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Mendocino County health orders permit churches to produce events that are livestreamed or recorded, provided certain precautions are taken.

Three people who became infected physically attended the May 10 church service in inland Mendocino County, which involved singing, and two of them participated, county officials said in a news release. Officials did not name the house of worship but said they were urging church leaders to do so themselves to encourage congregants who were present to seek testing.

The Mendocino County resident who became infected was a man over 65 living in the Ukiah Valley, whose case was reported to the county Public Health Department on Friday evening, officials said. He became the 14th case of the coronavirus recorded by the county.

The man was isolated at home. County public health officials learned of the church service while tracing his contacts to investigate how he became infected.

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Officials described the man as a close contact of two Lake County residents who also attended the service and were diagnosed Saturday afternoon. One was hospitalized Saturday at Adventist Health Ukiah Valley, officials said. The other was in isolation at home.

The residents are the only two active cases of coronavirus reported by the Lake County Health Services Department. Eight other residents there have recovered from the virus, according to health department figures.

Neither Lake nor Mendocino County has recorded any deaths related to COVID-19.

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Residents in Mendocino County are still advised to stay home as much as possible, and social gatherings beyond members of an immediate household remain prohibited. But an updated health order issued May 8 cited progress in slowing the virus’ spread and permitted a number of new businesses deemed lower-risk to resume operations.

The order permits churches, concert halls, playhouses and other venues to perform operations necessary to record or livestream an event, provided they limit attendance to 12 people, maintain social distancing requirements and take other infection-control precautions.

For events that involve singing or similar activities, venues are instructed to take risk-mitigation measures that may include placing Plexiglas screens between singers, ensuring proper ventilation and positioning singers so they are more than six feet apart and not face-to-face, the order states.

Mendocino County officials said it’s critical for people who produce such events to observe the precautions to avoid outbreaks, particularly when singing is involved.

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To contain the spread of COVID-19, parks, restaurants and stores are slowly reopening.

Overall, the vast majority of religious institutions have followed stay-at-home orders and canceled in-person services. But there have been a few exceptions.

Such activity has been linked to outbreaks elsewhere in the country. In March, 45 people became infected with the virus and two died after attending choir practice at a church in Mount Vernon, Wash.

Health officials concluded that the virus was almost certainly transmitted through the air from one or more people without symptoms. Experts said at the time that it was possible that the forceful breathing action of singing dispersed viral particles in the church room that were widely inhaled.

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In-person church services that are not held for the purpose of livestreaming or recording remain banned in Mendocino County and elsewhere under the stay-at-home order issued by the state.

The number of local coronavirus cases reached 5,836 in San Diego County, on a weekend when protesters again demanded leaders lift public health orders.

In San Diego County at least two churches, in Chula Vista and Oceanside, held religious services in person Sunday despite orders.

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Rushing Wind Church in Oceanside and Hilltop Tabernacle in Chula Vista followed through with plans to hold in-person services despite local health orders prohibiting such gatherings, according to CBS-8.

A Rushing Wind official said last week that the church would follow federal health guidelines during the service, urging people to bring masks and asking people who are ill or have weak immune systems to watch the service online.

Oceanside police spokesman Tom Bussey said officers responded to calls about the service. He said the crowd was wearing masks and following social distancing rules.

He was not aware of other details about the response, but said officers generally educate the public about the orders in place before considering citations.

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Chula Vista police said that they didn’t visit Hilltop Tabernacle on Sunday because they didn’t receive any complaints.

On four previous occasions since late March, Chula Vista police have visited the church, responding to complaints about both indoor and outdoor services. No citations have been issued.

Newsom’s stay-at-home order did not violate the constitutional rights to free assembly and religion when the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi was ordered to cease services, Judge John Mendez ruled in Sacramento.

On Friday, a federal judge in San Diego denied a request from a Chula Vista church for a temporary restraining order against the state that would allow it to hold in-person services.

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U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant said the orders do not discriminate against religion and are a legal use of state authority in the time of a health emergency.

The South Bay United Pentecostal church had sued Newsom and other state and county officials over the orders and Newsom’s plan to gradually reopen the state. Under that plan, in-person religious gatherings would be allowed in the third stage of a four-stage program. The state is moving through the second stage.

Times staff writer Laura Newberry and San Diego Union-Tribune staff writers David Garrick and Greg Moran contributed to this report.


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