L.A. County health officials make last-minute Christmas plea: Don’t attend indoor church services

Parishioners of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church of L.A. worship during a socially distanced outdoor Sunday service.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

On Christmas Eve, Los Angeles County public health officials made a last-minute plea to residents preparing to celebrate the holiday: Don’t attend indoor church services — it’s not safe.

In a statement posted Thursday on the Department of Public Health’s website, officials said they recognized that people have a “sincere desire” for a return to normalcy and to attend in-person indoor services as they have in the past.

“Now, most unfortunately, is not the time to attend indoor religious services,” the message said. “The County of Los Angeles is in the midst of its highest surge of COVID-19 cases. The local emergency rooms and hospitals are over-capacity. And there are no indications of an end in sight to the current surge.”


The statement added: “Attending an indoor service will result in transmission of COVID-19 and additional hospitalizations that the healthcare system cannot handle at this time.”

L.A. County reported one of its deadliest days in the pandemic Thursday with 148 additional deaths — a new daily record. Officials warn the deaths will continue to mount unless residents take steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Houses of worship in the county have the right to meet inside after officials this week loosened their own guidelines for religious services, allowing for socially distanced and mask-wearing gatherings indoors.

The move came after a series of judicial rulings across the country, including by the U.S. Supreme Court. They involved religious organizations claiming that public health orders violate their constitutional right of freedom of religion.

The Supreme Court in late November ruled in a case about New York’s restrictions on houses of worship that states could not place more stringent limits on religious organizations than on other places where large numbers of people gather. This month, a Kern County judge, citing the Supreme Court decision, also ruled that restrictions on indoor religious services in California are unconstitutional.

Despite lifting the ban, L.A. County officials for days have told residents that meeting for religious services indoors over the holiday will increase chances of contracting the virus, saying that failure to follow guidance against gathering on Thanksgiving helped bring the deadliest wave of the pandemic.


Many religious leaders have echoed the advice. In a letter to priests and pastors issued this week, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez said that although indoor worship was now permitted within the county, outdoor gatherings were safer and still strongly encouraged.

Najuma Smith-Pollard, pastor at Word of Encouragement Community Church in Pico-Union, said her congregation held a virtual pre-Christmas worship Wednesday night. Smith-Pollard, who pastors about 160 families and knows three people who died from the virus in the last month, led the service from a studio with a musician.

“If there is anybody still trying to have an in-person service gathering, they’re not paying attention to the numbers, and they’re not paying attention to the infection rate,” she said. “It’s really high, and it’s very close to home.”

In their Christmas Eve statement, public health officials said people can spread the virus before they get symptoms or even if they are asymptomatic. Activities such as talking loudly or singing indoors increase the concentration of suspended small droplets and particles carrying the virus, they said.

“No matter what a Superior Court judge says and given what’s happening now, it is simply too risky to gather indoors with other people who do not live with you,” the statement said. “Public Health urges you to continue to more safely worship as you have during the pandemic by attending remotely via streaming service or at outdoor services only.”

Times staff writer Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.