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Avlakeotes said he’s personally encountered so few cases of COVID-19 — and almost none that were serious — that he was more concerned about his parishioners being susceptible to succumbing to pneumonia from attending outdoor services in the cold weather.
“It’s not that we don’t care. Of course we care,” he said. “But the chances of dying of COVID are so minuscule, and yet we’re asked to give up our community, our prayer, our community and life of the church, and give up our connection with God.”
Hopkins disputed that claim, noting the seriousness of the airborne virus that has so far caused a nearly 11-month global pandemic.
“That’s just not factually accurate and it’s concerning when people choose to live in alternate realities,” Hopkins said. “We know the risk of the virus, the transmission of the virus, and, what’s worse, that there’s more transmissible variants circulating in California right now.”
She cited the example of a Mother’s Day church service held last year at Redwood Valley Assembly of God church in Mendocino County that led to more than a dozen confirmed cases, including Pastor Jack McMilin, and at least one death.
In Sonoma County, health officials have linked at least 138 cases to some type of religious gathering, said Kate Pack, the county’s lead epidemiologist. Of those, 68 are connected to funerals, 46 to church services, 15 to weddings and fewer than 12 to prayer or rosary. Pack said there likely are more cases linked to religious practices because some people with COVID-19 have refused to cooperate with contact tracers or have not been able to be reached.
Ward, one of Avlakeotes’ understudies, cited First Amendment rights in defending Spring Hills’ decision to continue offering indoor services, which also entail a livestream broadcast and recordings posted to YouTube for those uncomfortable attending in person. The church’s YouTube channel includes recordings of indoor services dating to before Thanksgiving, through Christmas and each Sunday in January.
Religious freedom vs. public health
The state’s latest stay-home order took effect in Sonoma County on Dec. 12 and was extended indefinitely on Jan. 8 before Newsom lifted it on Monday. Even so, all indoor gatherings remain banned in the county, as do groups of 12 or more people from more than three households congregating together outdoors, under the most restrictive of Newsom’s four-tiered system. Sonoma County returned to that most restrictive purple tier on Monday afternoon.
A federal appeals court last week denied a San Diego-area church’s petition to overturn California’s ability to block indoor church services during the pandemic. The decision marked the fourth such defeat for the same congregation, South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, which first sued Newsom in May for restricting indoor worship. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier voted 5-4 to reject the church’s complaint, but a subsequent 5-4 decision in November, after Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the nation’s highest court, ruled in favor of three New York congregations that sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo on similar grounds.
The Supreme Court has yet to revisit California’s limits on church services, allowing Newsom and individual counties in the state to continue to bar indoor church services.
“It’s hard, balancing what to do with everything going on,” Ward said Sunday. “We’re all kind of open and spread out, so it seems to help people. (There’s) room between the rows and all that, people wearing masks,” even though the local church pastor of 12 years also acknowledged some were not, despite the church offering free face masks and hand sanitizer.
He said Spring Hills had previously been in contact with the county and Sheriff’s Office, though did not offer details. He said canceling indoor services has frequently come up among church leadership.
“Oh yeah, there’s always talks. But not today. Not this week,” Ward said Sunday, following the final of four weekend services.
For Avlakeotes, the ban on in-person, indoor church services runs counter to what he says the nation stands for.
“We live in America and have a right to assemble peaceably, speak your mind, write your piece, and, in America, a freedom to worship God,” he said. “This is not communist China or communist Russia. This is what America was founded on — freedom. So give people the freedom to worship God. That’s what I say. They don’t have a right to take it away.”
January has been the deadliest period in Sonoma County since the start of the pandemic. At least 68 people have died this month, more than a quarter of the county’s total fatalities related to the coronavirus, according to county data. By far the highest case rate has also occurred in first month of the new year, with an average of 235 new infections per day through Thursday.
Gullixson held little back as he implored all Sonoma County residents, including churchgoers and their faith leaders, to avoid pandemic fatigue and uphold the county’s health order guidelines that continue to restrict or limit many activities.
“We are in the depths of a major pandemic and a social compact that we have that we need to support one another and follow the rules so we can get out of this situation,” he said. “These restrictions are in place for a reason, because we all want to get back to normal, and we have a choice as a community to either follow them or ignore them. When we ignore them, we see what happens: Case rates go up, as we are in the middle of a surge.
“We all want our kids back in school, want restaurants to fully open and to be able to go to movie theaters, but to get there we need to follow the guidelines,” Gullixson continued. “So if we’re only going to do things based on whether we’re going to get caught, then we’re never going to get out this crisis.”
He said the county will be tracking Spring Hills Church and its service schedule closely, with the code enforcement team planning future compliance visits. Wick, the director of the county’s permit department, said he preferred not to speculate about whether the church will follow the public health order after this week’s fine, but he and his staff will be watching.
“They like everybody else hopefully will comply with the health order,” he said. “Even though we’re now under a different regulation scheme with being in the purple tier, we’ll continue to enforce the ordinance the way we have and hopefully people will comply with the ordinance — so we can all be healthier.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or [email protected] On Twitter @kfixler.
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