Reopening places of worship is a Phase 3 privilege under California Governor Gavin Newsom’s recovery plan. But several megachurches say they’ll open their pews on May 30 — with or without permission.
(CN) — The state of California moved carefully toward opening its economy on Thursday, with Governor Gavin Newsom announcing the state would enter phase 2 of the process.
“We are moving away from viewing it as essential versus nonessential workers and toward opening businesses that are lower risk,” Newsom said in his daily press briefing.
Phase 2 means California will allow retail businesses to expand curbside pickup and delivery, manufacturing plants and warehouses will open back up if modifications are made so workers can physically distance themselves. The new phase also opens the possibility of opening restaurants, shopping malls and outdoor museums if certain stipulations met.
Specifically, counties with low spread of Covid-19 and without a death in the past 14 days can move more fully into Phase 2, whereas counties like Los Angeles — where the spread of the disease continues unabated — will have to hold off on some of the more risky elements of reopening.
“We can open only as we reduce the risk,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California Health and Human Services. “We have managed to suppress Covid-19 quite a bit but it is still spreading.”
But Newsom and Ghaly said a steady decline in hospitalizations and ICU admissions throughout the state along with stabilization in deaths and new infections has allowed the state to enter Phase 2.
“By no stretch of the imagination is this over,” Newsom said.
The governor said the last seven weeks of lockdown has helped the state ramp up its testing capacity and hire “an army of disease detectives” — contact tracers who will help continue to contain the disease as the state slowly attempts to return to robust activity.
“We anticipate more engagement, more mixing and that puts people at risk,” Newsom said. But the state is prepared to mitigate that risk through testing and contact tracing while trusting citizens to continue to practice physical distancing when they are out and about.
Newsom also talked about the need for “regional variance,” meaning that California statistics in the aggregate do not necessarily reflect what is happening on the ground in all locations throughout the large and geographically diverse state.
Los Angeles has the most cases and deaths by far, and the largest and most populous county in the state continues to see a rise in infections and deaths, with 815 new confirmed cases and 51 new deaths in the last 24 hours. The county accounts for slightly more than half of the 92 new deaths reported throughout the state in the past 24 hours.
LA County Public Health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said Thursday many more people will be out in public by the end of this week as the local health order is relaxed to allow for select businesses and services to resume. But that does not include large gatherings or people having close contact with people from outside their homes, she said.
The county’s death toll stands at 1,418. Just over 29,400 Angelenos have tested positive for the virus.
“As we begin this journey of recovery many of us will be going back to work or being around more people,” said Ferrer. “But that doesn’t mean that we’re living in a post-Covid-19 world.”
San Francisco, another large metropolis, saw only 104 new cases and two deaths over the past 24 hours.
There are at least 10 of the 58 counties that have five or fewer confirmed cases over the outbreak, and the clamor from those counties to be allowed to fully reopen their economies has increased in recent days.
Newsom’s promise to move into Phase 2 of reopening is in many ways a political concession to those areas that continue to stridently appeal for looser restrictions given the economic pain created by the pandemic, but so far remain inoculated against the public health ramifications.
Yuba and Sutter Counties announced they will allow a large cross-section of their businesses to reopen, only to find state officials show up at restaurants and nail salons to order closures and threaten to pull state operating licenses.
Yuba and Sutter County officials say they are furious.
North of Sacramento, Yuba County has had 19 confirmed cases and one death. Nearby Sutter County has confirmed 31 cases and two deaths.
Newsom and the state has also tussled with Orange County officials, demanding they close beaches after photographs appeared to show dense crowds a couple of weekends ago flouting social distancing requirements.
Protests erupted in Newport Beach after Newsom forced a hard closure, but the governor has taken steps to reopen all of the shuttered beaches and began outlining how restaurants and other businesses can get back to operating in areas where the outbreak is slight or nonexistent.
“Our behavior will decide and determine how quickly we move into the next phase,” Newsom said.
Churches and other places of worship must remain shuttered under Phase 2 but could reopen under Phase 3.
But several megachurches announced Thursday they will resume public worship starting May 30, promising they will adhere to social distancing and infection control.
Masks, gloves and plexiglass could be part of the equation, church leaders said at a press conference. They vowed to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which could include reduced occupancy.
“Churches are part of the answer and not part of the problem,” said Dan Carroll, a pastor at the Water of Life Community Church. “We feel like we’ve been bypassed and kicked to the curb.”
The church leaders representing multiple congregations across California were joined by attorney Robert Tyler, president of Advocates for Faith & Freedom. Tyler also has represented other church organizations in federal court in suing Newsom to allow places of worship to reopen during the Covid-19 pandemic and over Newsom’s stay-at-home health orders in general.
A federal judge found the state has added authority during times of emergency and denied the group’s motion.
“If a porn studio can operate during the Covid-19 crisis, why can’t a church be considered essential?” Tyler asked at Thursday’s press conference.
The Orange County-based Church United — which sued the video-hosting service Vimeo in federal court for removing videos by a pastor who said he was the product of gay-conversion therapy — is spearheading the campaign. They are represented by Advocates for Faith & Freedom and the National Center for Law and Policy.
The church leaders said they are willing to work with the governor’s office and facilitate some type of arrangement to be part of the Phase 2 rollout.
But Carroll said the church groups have already made their decision to reopen on May 30 and May 31, the Christian holy day of Pentecost.
“The train has already left the station,” said Carroll. “Hundreds of churches will reopen.”
Carroll said his church, located in San Bernardino County city of Fontana, can seat up to 3,200 parishioners and that could be reduced to allow social distancing.
As of Thursday, San Bernardino health officials reported 108 deaths and 2,562 total coronavirus infections.
Orange County reported one new death overnight, bringing the county’s death toll to 66 with 3,092 total residents infected.
Looking much further down the road, Newsom said Thursday that Phase 4 requires California to either achieve herd immunity or get its hands on a vaccine. In Phase 4, life returns to what it was like before the pandemic, with concerts and large sporting events and other events involving large gatherings taking place once more.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do before we get there,” Newsom said.