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Churches in Oceanside and Chula Vista hold in-person services despite public health orders

Hilltop Tabernacle Church in Chula Vista
Hilltop Tabernacle Church in Chula Vista was one church that followed through with plans to hold in-person services despite local health orders prohibiting such gatherings.
(Gustavo Solis / San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego County officials reported 174 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, a day in which at least two local churches, in Chula Vista and Oceanside, held religious services in person despite orders intended to slow the virus.

No new deaths were reported Sunday, leaving the county’s death toll at 209.

The total number of local cases reached 5,836, on a weekend when protesters again demanded leaders lift public health orders that have shut down churches and businesses since mid-March.

On Saturday, about 500 people staged a protest at the County Administration Building while another group circled government buildings in downtown San Diego in their cars and called upon Congress to provide people with recurring, monthly cash relief during the pandemic.

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On Sunday, 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.

Multiple churches have filed lawsuits seeking to overturn California’s stay-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, contending the restrictions deprive them of their religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting communal services.

But federal judges have ruled that Gov. Gavin Newsom can ban church assemblies to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Health officials say large gatherings are high risk for community spread of the virus.

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.

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CBS 8 reported that Fred Zariczny, the pastor of Rushing Wind, issued a statement saying the service intended to “peacefully challenge our governor’s draconian and tyrannical edict.”

A video posted on the station’s website showed that few people at the outdoor service were wearing masks, and most appeared to be seated within six feet of others.

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.

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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.

Chula Vista police said that they didn’t visit Hilltop Tabernacle 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.

Chula Vista police Capt. Phil Collum said Sunday that he was reluctant to talk about any next steps in terms of possible enforcement against the church, noting that he was unaware of any services there Sunday.

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Speaking in general terms, Collum said the Police Department works with the City Attorney’s Office and Code Enforcement Division to gain cooperation through education across the city to “ensure Chula Vista stays healthy and safe.”

“We’re not just focused on this church,” he said.

Collum said the department’s response to potential violations of the public health orders is not “exclusively complaint-driven,” though the department does rely on the community.

He added that the department also engages in “proactive activities” that include a “number of law enforcement resources” that are “seen and unseen” to gain compliance with the orders, though he wouldn’t elaborate.

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Police agencies around the county have issued dozens of citations to people accused of violating stay-home orders intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, many have said their main intent is to educate the public in hopes of seeking voluntary compliance with rules.

In April, the county said it would allow drive-in church services. Public gatherings are not allowed under the public health order.

County health officials said that of the 4,363 tests reported Saturday, about 3.9% were positive new cases.

The number of tests was slightly down from the 4,505 conducted on Friday. County officials have set a goal of testing 5,200 people per day. More than 105,000 total tests have been completed.

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The number of people hospitalized dropped from 392 on Friday to 370 on Saturday, but the number of patients in intensive care increased from 151 to 153, the county said Sunday.

The total number of patients hospitalized is 1,104 and the total who’ve needed intensive care is 332.

Garrick and Hernandez write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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