More COVID-19 cases linked to California church services
More coronavirus infections have been tied to two Mother’s Day church services in Mendocino and Butte counties, officials announced this week.
That disclosure comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom is poised to provide plans for reopening California churches amid mounting pressure to allow in-person religious services both from protesters and President Trump, who is demanding that governors take action immediately.
Nine cases of COVID-19, the infection caused by the coronavirus, are now linked to the May 10 service held by the Assembly of God in the Mendocino County city of Redwood Valley. The service was livestreamed to congregants and included singing, county public health officials said Friday.
Mendocino County health orders permit churches to produce events that are livestreamed or recorded, provided certain precautions are taken. They include specific measures to mitigate the risk associated with singing, which experts believe can spew viral particles into the air.
Officials announced last week that three people had become infected after physically attending the service, with two of them participating. One person was hospitalized.
That person’s spouse then disclosed the couple’s affiliation with the church on Facebook. Because of the social media share, officials were allowed to release the church’s name to the public and advise congregants to obtain testing, Dr. Noemi Doohan, Mendocino County public health officer, said Friday at a news conference.
On Tuesday, the county launched a large-scale drive-through testing site in Redwood Valley for the purpose. Officials learned Friday morning that six more people had tested positive, all of them connected to the Assembly of God church, Doohan said.
“When we have an outbreak of such a large magnitude, it’s very concerning because we know that these individuals have had other contacts since contracting the disease,” she said.
Public health officials were working to identify and reach out to the infected people’s contacts and arrange for them to obtain free testing, Doohan said.
The new infections brought the number of coronavirus cases in Mendocino County from 15 to 21. Two people were hospitalized.
The spike in infections came as the county received state approval to move into a more aggressive stage of reopening businesses, clearing the way for in-restaurant dining and in-store shopping.
“I know this is a challenging time when we have on one hand outbreaks and on the other hand we have limited reopenings,” Doohan said. She urged residents to follow health orders and warned that if cases rose to the point where the healthcare system became strained, officials might have to reverse course on relaxing the rules.
“I do not believe we are at that point today,” she said, but “this weekend if we have people defying the health officer’s orders, in other words coming together, having parties, if businesses do not comply with the orders, if people ignore the reality of this pandemic, this weekend could be disastrous for us.”
In Butte County, two coronavirus cases are now believed to be linked to a May 10 church service that was held despite county rules and drew more than 180 attendees, officials said.
The pastor, Mike Jacobsen of Palermo Bible Family Church, spoke out on social media about his decision to hold the service, saying he would “never with knowledge put anyone in harms way.”
One person received a positive test result the day after the service, officials said. On Friday, the Butte County Public Health Department said another recent case had been linked to the service but did not provide the date the case was recorded.
Butte County has seen a recent surge in coronavirus cases, bringing its total to 34, but most of them are not linked to the church service, officials said. The county was cleared to move into an accelerated Phase 2 of reopening businesses on May 9.
“We are seeing a pretty dramatic increase in cases,” Dr. Andy Miller, the county public health officer, said Friday. “We thought we would see an uptick in cases when we started to open up, but in the last two days, we have seen seven new cases in Oroville alone.” The cases indicate an increase in community spread in the Oroville area, officials said.
After Butte County experienced many weeks with no coronavirus hospitalizations, five people were hospitalized in the past two days, Miller said Friday.
“If we continue to see more cases coming quickly and we continue to see more hospitalizations — five of them in the last two days — we will lose lives,” he said, “and we will not be able to open the businesses that we want to, and we will have to put further restrictions on businesses, which we don’t want to have to do.”
At a COVID-19 briefing held at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville on Friday, Newsom indicated that this week he’d announce plans for churches to reopen.
“We look forward to churches reopening in a safe and responsible manner,” he said, “and we have guidelines that we anticipated completing on Monday and we’re on track to do just that.”
His comments came hours after Trump made an unexpected appearance in the White House briefing room to declare that he was designating churches as “essential” businesses so that they could immediately reopen.
Trump, who has said he would leave decisions about easing public health guidance to states but has often criticized decisions by individual governors, threatened that he would “override” states that didn’t heed his directive. It was not clear what authority he was referring to.
Under California’s four-stage plan to relax stay-at-home restrictions, churches can resume in-person services in Phase 3. The state is currently moving through Phase 2.
On Friday night, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Newsom’s ban on in-person church services, a split ruling that is likely to further anger pastors who claim that California is trampling on religious freedoms.
The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego cannot reopen immediately, the two judges in the majority wrote in their order, because in this case “constitutional standards that would normally govern our review of a Free Exercise claim should not be applied.”
“We’re dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure. In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a '[c]ourt does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact,’” they wrote.
The decision came the same week more than 1,200 pastors vowed to hold in-person services on May 31, Pentecost Sunday, defying the state moratorium on religious gatherings that Newsom imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Times staff writers Sonali Kohli, Phil Willon and Eli Stokols contributed to this report.
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