Church services move to California beaches, sparking fears of coronavirus outbreaks

Hundreds gathered July 10 for the weekly Saturate OC worship event held north of the pier in Huntington Beach.
(Raul Roa / Los Angeles Times)

With the coronavirus continuing to surge in California, officials imposed limits on indoor church services in many areas.

But now, there are concerns about several large church services being held on beaches. It started with a series of large gatherings in Huntington Beach. Then this weekend, there was another one at Cardiff State Beach in San Diego County.

For the most part, religious institutions have followed the COVID-19 restrictions. But a few have filed lawsuits, arguing the restrictions violate their constitutional rights. The latest lawsuit was filed earlier this month, with three churches in Northern California claiming that a ban on singing in places of worship violates their 1st Amendment rights.

Here is what we know about the beach services:



A large beach gathering Sunday with most in attendance worshiping shoulder-to-shoulder without masks drew concern from a top public health official Monday.

Asked for her reaction to the gathering, estimated to have drawn more than 1,000 participants to Cardiff State Beach in the late afternoon and early evening, Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County’s public health officer, said she had seen images of the peaceful event.

“In the photos that I saw, it really was a massive group of people gathering together without social distancing and without wearing facial coverings, so we will continue to address these egregious violations as we have others that have come to our attention,” Wooten said.

She did not, however, say more about what actions the county might take.

The event was organized by worship leader Sean Feucht, who recently received coverage in faith-focused media for an ongoing tour of “outdoor gospel” events in California cities, including Redding, Pasadena, Bakersfield and Fresno. Feucht did not respond to a request for an interview made through his website Monday evening.

Sgt. Jake Pflepsen, a state park peace officer supervisor and lifeguard assigned to Cardiff, said Monday evening that while no permit was issued for the gathering, no tickets were issued. Saying only that state parks’ main enforcement goal is “public safety,” he deferred further questions about the state’s citation policies to headquarters in Sacramento, which was unavailable to comment Monday evening.

Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach officials have expressed concern about Saturate OC, a religious workshop being held on the sand. Its organizers estimate that as many as 1,800 people attended for nearly two hours of musical performances, baptisms and prayers.


The city of Huntington Beach said in a statement that it “firmly supports the right of any religious group to worship,” but that they must follow permitting and safety protocols. “Unfortunately, the Saturate OC event promoters have not instituted safety protocols prescribed by the state and county, and they have refused to obtain a permit for their event,” the city said.

The event’s directors told The Times on Saturday they thought they were being singled out because of their religion.

“I think it’s more of a political statement than anything at this point, for people to actually shut down a worship service when there’s mass protests with hundreds of thousands of people in L.A. and then we’re getting highlighted in the news for spreading the virus,” said Parker Green, 34, who organized the recurring event with his wife Jessi, 35.

On Friday, the Greens provided participants with hand sanitizer and gave out hundreds of masks, they said, but they estimated at least 60% of people chose not to wear them.

“Suicide rates have shot up since COVID, and we have people crying on the beach because they’re getting set free from suicidal thoughts, and they’re saying this is the thing that they’ve needed,” Jessi Green said. “And I think that’s why there’s so many people coming to the beach.”

Sisson writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.