Outdoor religious gatherings draw warnings and rebukes from health officials
Along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, electronic road signs were programmed to read: CANCELED SATURATE OC.
But the evangelical worship event took place on the sand near Lifeguard Tower 20 for the fourth Friday in a row, despite warnings that it was violating public health orders and permitting rules, officials said. Its organizers estimate as many as 1,800 people attended for nearly two hours of musical performances, baptisms and prayers.
Days earlier, minister and musician Sean Feucht urged his fellow Christians to join him under the Sundial Bridge in Redding for a night of worship.
“Bring a mask (we’ll have some if you need). Spread out. Let’s worship Jesus and love on our city!” he said on Twitter.
It’s been nearly two weeks since Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the re-closure of churches in much of the state amid a worrying resurgence of new coronavirus cases. Though outdoor worship services are still permitted, participants are supposed to wear face coverings and keep six feet apart, as is required when Californians are around anyone who is not a member of their household.
But from Orange County to Northern California, people continue to gather for large outdoor ceremonies without following the rules, prompting stern reprimands from public health officials.
The Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency recommended that anyone who attended the Redding service get tested for the coronavirus and self-quarantine for 14 days.
“We truly empathize with all who have had to change the way they worship in the past few months,” the agency said in a news release. “Very sadly, some of our local cases of COVID-19, including hospitalizations, have resulted from faith gatherings, and it’s critical that our faith community leaders continue to offer safe services that follow the state guidelines.”
The health agency noted in its statement that “there was much physical touching” at the event, and the crowd was too large to fit in the area around the bridge while maintaining social distancing.
As of Friday, Shasta County had 291 confirmed coronavirus cases, with five people hospitalized and eight dead from the virus.
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 said they thought they were being singled out because of their religion.
“I think it’s more of a political statement that 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.
Huntington Beach Police officers visited the Greens’ home ahead of the 6 p.m. service and cited Parker for promoting an event without a permit. They planned to expand the charge to holding an event without a permit, and officers were also recommending that his wife be cited, Angela Bennett, public information officer for the Huntington Beach Police Department, said Saturday. Each municipal code violation carries a potential fine of $1,000, she said.
The Greens had been planning Saturate OC for more than a year and initially planned to host it at the Hyatt hotel, but then the coronavirus pandemic put an indefinite end to large indoor gatherings, they said. They held their first event at Huntington Beach on July 3, and they’ve seen attendance grow every week, surpassing their expectations, they said.
“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.”
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. “It’s Orange County,” Parker Green said, referencing the strong resistance to following public health orders that many county residents have become noted for.
“Obviously [coronavirus] is a concern that we have in our mind, especially with people that are more vulnerable, but I’m driving through Main Street in Huntington Beach right now, and there are no masks, hundreds of people bumping into each other,” he said Saturday. “When is it enforceable and when is it not?”
Public health officials have said there are potential hazards associated with churches — namely, the prevalence of singing and chanting, which can increase the likelihood of transmission through droplet spread. Even in less hard-hit counties where churches have been allowed to remain open for indoor services, the state has required that they not have singing and chanting indoors and limit attendance to either 25% of building capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower.
When it comes to outdoor services, state guidelines advise local health authorities to consider appropriate limitations based on local conditions.
Orange County has seen a recent surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, reporting more than 33,900 cases and 560 deaths as of Saturday, with 685 COVID-19 patients in county hospitals. Based on the county’s transmission rate, its public health department determined the Saturate OC event should be limited to 100 people or less, the city of Huntington Beach said Friday in a news release.
When the organizers declined to limit attendance, the public health department declared the event to be in violation of public health orders, the city said.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the declaration carried any weight. The Greens said they received no communication from county authorities about violating health orders. The health department did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, the couple has decided Friday’s Saturate OC was the last one they’ll hold in Huntington Beach. They’re hoping to find somewhere else in Orange County instead.
“They kind of put us between a rock and a hard place because they’re saying churches, as a whole, that they can’t meet inside buildings because of the health codes, to go outside,” Jessi Green said. “So we’re just trying to find places to go outside to share the gospel and practice our religion, but then we’re being told the public city beach is not an option.”
“So where exactly is it OK, according to California municipalities and the state government, for me to practice my religion?” Parker Green said.
Feucht, who could not be reached for comment, is holding “Let Us Worship” events around the country, including in Pasadena and Bakersfield earlier this week and Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas in the coming weeks.
A flier for one of the events, in San Diego on Sunday, urges attendees to “Please bring a mask and practice social distancing between households.”
In a video filmed Friday before the Bakersfield event, Feucht appeared in a park with the city’s mayor, Karen Goh.
“We’re socially distanced, we want to follow the guidelines, we want to worship,” he said.
Pasadena police did not receive any calls about the gathering at 400 W. Claremont St. on Thursday evening, said Lt. Marcia Taglioretti. Officers are not making arrests for social distancing or mask violations, but they attempt to educate the public about the requirements, she said.
In a video on Feucht’s Twitter page, labeled “Let Us Worship — Live — Pasadena,” Feucht plays the guitar, accompanied by a drummer.
The crowd, closely packed and maskless, sings: “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
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