San Francisco cracks down on archdiocese for violating coronavirus rules

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, center, speaks with other clergy members
Salvatore Cordileone, center, leads the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which received a cease-and-desist letter from the city attorney alleging violations of COVID-19 health orders.
(Michael Short / Associated Press)

The Archdiocese of San Francisco has agreed to stop celebrating public Mass indoors and to restrict outdoor services after city officials threatened to close churches that were operating in defiance of the city’s public health orders amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“The Archdiocese remains steadfast in protecting the health of its congregants and all San Franciscans,” general counsel Paula Carney wrote Tuesday, responding to City Atty. Dennis Herrera, who had sent a cease-and-desist letter the previous day.

In the seven-page document, Herrera alleged a series of violations that followed Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s decision to allow parishes to resume public indoor Masses in mid-June.

“We were surprised at the city attorney’s letter, as the archdiocese has been in close contact with city officials for several months now,” communications director Mike Brown said in a statement Thursday. “We have initiated contact to help decision-makers understand the nature of our religious services, the sizes of our churches and the care with which the California bishops have taken to plan very safe reopening of our churches for public Masses — when public health officials permit.”

The state of California allowed religious services to resume in late May, saying houses of worship must limit total attendance to 25% of a building’s capacity and stop passing around offering plates, in addition to taking other precautions, including the wearing of masks. But it was up to individual cities and counties to determine when churches, mosques, synagogues or other houses of worship could reopen.

Public health officials said in May that San Francisco would allow religious services and ceremonies to resume June 15. But after an increase in the number of coronavirus cases, the city’s public health orders were updated June 11, noting that religious services could be held only if conducted outdoors and with a limited number of people.


Businesses like hair salons, zoos and outdoor bars that were scheduled to reopen Monday will now stay closed, the San Francisco health director said, amid a surge in infection rates.

Despite that, the archdiocese began celebrating in-person Mass on June 14 at more than half a dozen churches across San Francisco. That Sunday, the city attorney began receiving numerous complaints about the health and safety violations, including one involving an unmasked priest sharing a homily at Star of the Sea Church.

Herrera’s letter linked to a video showing the services at Star of the Sea, in which Father Cameron Faller reminded parishioners of a church forefather who had been put to death for illegally celebrating Mass.

“It would have been far safer for him to stay in his home and do nothing, to do a spiritual Communion, but he knew he needed the Eucharist, as did his fellow companion martyrs,” Faller says in the homily.

After quoting a priest who held covert services in a Russian gulag, Faller said he was concerned that social distancing orders preventing Mass will do unholy harm.

“Part of me fears what effect this could have on the church, that the very life force of people’s spiritual lives has been taken away from them for three months,” Faller said, noting that recent in-person protests prove the importance of proximity.

“Some things in life are more important than health protocols,” he said.

After four daily infection records in the last two weeks, officials fear social gatherings could bring even more outbreaks over the July 4 weekend.

The church openings came amid warnings from both Herrera and San Francisco’s health officer, Dr. Tomás Aragón, who told the archdiocese that holding Mass would violate the city’s COVID-19 protocol, according to the letter Herrera sent this week.

Herrera said he reminded the archdiocese June 11 of the city’s order: that indoor religious services could be held only for funerals of fewer than 12 people.

Church officials responded the next day, Herrera said, noting that protocols had been created for renewed public Masses. But the city attorney said the proposed policy allowed for indoor gatherings, did not require priests to wear masks and failed to adequately isolate singers.

A week later, on June 21, Herrera sent an investigator to several churches, according to the city attorney’s missive. The investigator witnessed indoor Masses at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption and Star of the Sea, where priests and parishioners alike were not wearing masks, Herrera said.

“Unfortunately, and contrary to increasing medical evidence that religious services without safeguards have caused serious outbreaks in many other cities and counties throughout the country, the Archdiocese has conducted both indoor and outdoor gatherings over the past three weekends that violate the health order and jeopardize the health and safety of San Franciscans,” Herrera wrote in the letter.

After the June 14 services, Aragón and Cordileone spoke twice. The health officer shared the city’s plans for a new phase of relaxed rules that were slated to begin June 29. The change would allow small indoor religious services and larger outdoor services.

But the modifications never came. As data showed the coronavirus becoming increasingly dangerous, San Francisco changed its plans and continued with its stricter health ordinance.

Aragón again spoke with Cordileone, and Herrera informed church officials of the restrictions Friday, but the archdiocese continued with indoor services Sunday, and many in attendance were not wearing face coverings, the city attorney noted.

Herrera sent the cease-and-desist order Monday.

“The Archdiocese has gone forward and held multiple indoor large gatherings at its facilities, which not only violate the health order but also evidence an alarming failure to follow common-sense safety protocols,” he wrote. “The Archdiocese refused to provide assurances that it would protect public health by complying with the safeguards in the health order.”

Herrera cited a Times report showing that religious services elsewhere have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks, such as one in Mendocino County, where a cluster of cases was linked to a May church service. He pointed out that most faith organizations have complied with the city’s orders, and he gave the church a final warning.

“Without your assurance that you intend to comply with these critical health orders, we will pursue a temporary restraining order to protect your parishioners and the broader community.”

On Thursday, Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s public health director, said the city was experiencing a “significant and alarming increase in COVID-19 infections.”

Our rates have soared,” he said. “We are in a situation where we could be seeing early signs of surge.”

While agreeing to the city’s mandate that church services be limited in size and held outside, Brown, the archdiocese’s communications director, said the city’s mixed signals on reopenings led to the confusion.

“During this time, there has been some confusion with city orders and conflicting timelines, which do change, and sometimes at the last minute. Regardless, our intention has always been to conform to what we understand to be the city orders and timelines,” he said in a statement.