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Limits on large gatherings in Sacramento were not applied to prayer event at state Capitol

The California State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 30, 2016.
Thousands of people attended a worship event over the weekend outside the state Capitol without following coronavirus-preventive social distancing or mask guidelines.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

State and local health officials said Tuesday they were troubled to learn that the California Highway Patrol allowed thousands of people to attend a worship event over the weekend outside the state Capitol without following social distancing or mask guidelines, noting that the rally is likely to lead to new cases of COVID-19.

CHP officials approved a permit for the organizers to use state Capitol grounds for the event, prompting questions about why safety guidelines were not enforced as the crowd grew Sunday to at least three times the number of attendees approved. CHP estimated 3,000 people attended the event, while event organizer Sean Feucht tweeted drone footage claiming a crowd of 12,000 people.

Sacramento County health director Peter Beilenson said the event was clearly in violation of county and state guidelines, and said county health officials would have attempted to shut it down if his office had been notified. Beilenson called large events amid the COVID-19 pandemic “irresponsible” and said he had not heard of Sunday’s crowd outside the state Capitol until Tuesday.

“Everyone was piled up,” he said. “That’s a problem. It’s not a matter of if there will be an outbreak from this, it’s how big.”

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Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a Tuesday news conference that he’s seen images that show participants were not physically distancing or wearing face coverings.

“If you get a permit to do something and you say you’re going to do the right thing, then, you need to do the right thing,” Newsom said. “It does not help to have thousands and thousands of people not practicing physical distancing or social distancing not wearing masks — in fact, quite the contrary — when literally someone can lose their lives and I know that’s not the intent of anyone that organizes these events, but it may be the outcome when you organize an event that grows larger than what you had asserted it to be and those mitigations were not put into place.”

The state public health department is recommending that those in attendance self-quarantine for 14 days while monitoring symptoms, but organizers for the group Let Us Worship have already moved on to other cities where they are holding large worship events.

State Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) spoke at the rally and appeared onstage without a mask while still under a quarantine order by the state public health department.

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According to Senate officials, Grove was among nine senators in close contact with state Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee), who learned on Aug. 26 that he tested positive for COVID-19. The California Department of Public Health told the nine senators to quarantine for 14 days until Sept. 9, regardless of whether their tests were negative.

Grove applied for the permit to hold the event on Sunday at the state Capitol, according to documents provided to The Times. The internal permit documents required the event’s organizers to outline how they planned to implement physical distancing at the event.

“We will make announcements and have people designated to assist in making sure people are doing it,” according to the application filed under Grove’s name.

However, videos posted by event organizers showed little physical distancing and few masks worn as bands played and attendees sang along. Feucht and Grove did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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“This event is even more concerning due to the singing, which allows the virus to spread faster,” said Dr. Erica Pan, the state’s acting public health officer. “Ultimately, this does not only put those in attendance at risk for COVID-19, but endangers the community at large, especially our older neighbors and those with underlying medical conditions.”

Sunday‘s event was approved for 1,000 attendees but grew in size, according to a statement sent from Jaime Coffee, a public information officer for CHP.

“The majority of the participants gathered on the west steps and failed to socially distance,” the statement said.

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A CHP Capitol permit officer reminded people at the event to socially distance, as did the event organizer, according to CHP. Ultimately, CHP decided to allow the event to continue after factoring in the “resources needed to disperse a crowd of this size,” participant safety, limited duration of the event and other factors.

The next stop for the Let Us Worship event in Seattle was interrupted briefly when city officials closed the park where Feucht, who ran a failed bid for Congress in March, had planned to hold the gathering. Mostly maskless worshippers instead packed the street.

Feucht’s website for Let Us Worship says, “our freedom to worship God and obey His Word has come under unprecedented attack.”

“It’s time for the Church to rise up with one voice and tell our government leaders and the rulers of big tech that we refuse to be silenced!” the website reads.

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In late May, after pushback from religious groups, the state modified its guidance on gatherings to allow indoor faith-based services, cultural ceremonies and protests with limitations. California also permits outdoor religious services and protests as long as participants remain six feet apart.

Public health officials said Tuesday that face coverings are required in outdoor public spaces when a physical distance of six feet can’t be maintained between people who are not part of the same household.

Permitted events at the Capitol must comply with California Department of Public Health guidelines, which allow for in-person political or religious protests without a cap on the number of attendees, according to the CHP’s rules for gatherings on state property. The rules say, “physical distancing of six feet between persons or groups of persons from different households shall be maintained at all times,” and failing to keep a distance “constitutes a violation of the permit and attendees are required to vacate state property.”

The CHP rules say face coverings are strongly recommended but not required.

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The permitting website for using the state Capitol grounds lists numerous upcoming events with anticipated crowds of 100 or more people. An Oct. 3 event titled “Praise in the Park” estimates 2,500 people will be in attendance.

After watching a video of the event showing masses of people shoulder to shoulder singing for hours, Beilenson said there needs to be more coordination between the state’s permitting process for the state Capitol grounds and county health officials.

“No one called me about it,” Beilenson said.

He said having the event outdoors helps reduce the spread, but that physical distance and masks are critical.

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“If there is an argument about the Black Lives Matter protests, they were overwhelmingly wearing masks,” Beilenson said.

Times staff writers John Myers and Phil Willon contributed to this report.


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