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Ventura County sues church after indoor services without masks or distance

Pastor Rob McCoy, right, gives Communion at an April 5 Palm Sunday service at his Thousand Oaks church.
Pastor Rob McCoy, right, gives Communion at an April 5 Palm Sunday service at his Thousand Oaks church, Godspeak Calvary Chapel.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Worshipers at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks have been celebrating their faith for months in open violation of state and local health orders in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Singing, hugging, no masks,” Senior Pastor Rob McCoy said, describing the services.

Now the church and Ventura County are facing off in court. County officials sued McCoy and the church this week to shut down the large, indoor gatherings. The lawsuit follows the county Board of Supervisors’ vote to use court actions to enforce COVID-19 health orders.

The case on the temporary restraining order is set to be heard Friday morning.

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The county’s suit says the church’s actions “will cause and continue to cause great and irreparable injury to the general public ... including hospitalizations and deaths, which in turn is likely to result in continued and further restrictions on businesses and other operations and activities.”

“It is only a matter of time — if it has not already happened — before there is a significant outbreak of COVID-19 cases among the attendees,” wrote Dr. Robert Levin, a Ventura County public health officer listed as a plaintiff in the suit.

McCoy, whom the suit said has declared himself “willing to go to jail” and “willing for [authorities] to take [his] building” rather than comply with the health orders, said he’s being unfairly targeted.

“We haven’t had one case” of the coronavirus, he said. Court documents allege more than 200 people have attended the services.

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McCoy’s run-ins with coronavirus orders have lasted nearly as long as the pandemic. The former Thousand Oaks mayor resigned his post as City Council member on April 4 after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared churches nonessential. The next day, he violated the governor’s orders, hosting socially distanced Communion inside his church for 10 people at a time.

Godspeak switched to livestreaming after Newsom shut down churches, McCoy said, but welcomed parishioners back inside without precautions after the governor supported the George Floyd protests against police violence and racism.

In July, county Public Health Director Rigoberto Vargas received a complaint about the church’s services and contacted McCoy. The pastor said he would continue to hold services, and Vargas saw no masks or social distancing when he watched the church’s livestream the next Sunday.

“Instead, attendees were in close proximity to one another, seated side by side in pews, for the entirety of the service. The church appeared to be at capacity,” Vargas wrote in a declaration set to be read in court Friday.

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Vargas reminded McCoy that outdoor or virtual services could be held. But McCoy said he won’t hold outdoor services “because we have a church.”

Even though Ventura County’s health officials — along with officials at the state and federal level — continue to call on citizens to wear masks, not gather indoors and practice social distancing, McCoy said data and expert consultations informed his decision to hold services without precautions.

“We would be the first to be masked and distanced, and willingly so, if this were meriting it, and it doesn’t. This isn’t a health issue, it’s an ideological issue,” McCoy said.

Ventura County reported 533 new COVID-19 cases Monday. Nearly 8,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the county, which has a population near 850,000. Seventy-nine people have died because of COVID-19, and 79 more are hospitalized with the virus.

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McCoy said those numbers “aren’t going to change” and are too low to justify “shuttering our schools and destroying our businesses.”

Ahead of Friday’s court proceedings, county Public Information Officer Ashley Bautista highlighted the potential danger of indoor gatherings.

“COVID-19 continues to spread from person to person and at gatherings. It is very important to follow the state’s guidance, so that the most vulnerable in our community can be spared from the disease,” Bautista said.

“Churches and other groups play a valuable role in the wellness of our county. We encourage people to stay connected, but to do so safely.”


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