Subscribe

Sonoma County church cited for public health order violations commits to continue services

How to file a public health order complaint in Sonoma County

Phone: 1-833-SAFE-707

Email: safe707@sonoma-county.org

Online: SoCo Report It

A Santa Rosa-area church that received repeated warnings for holding indoor services with large numbers of mostly unmasked worshippers was fined this week for violating public health orders, becoming the first church hit with a county citation since regional stay-home orders took effect in March.

The senior pastor of Spring Hills Church in Fulton vowed Thursday to continue defying a county ban on indoor worship services and large gatherings, setting the stage for a showdown pitting religious freedom against public health.

Leaders at Spring Hills Church were warned by the county three times since September to discontinue indoor services, county officials said this week. A fourth complaint, filed Jan. 21 with the county permit department, resulted in a $100 fine after a code enforcement team visited the church and discovered several hundred people attending weekend services, gatherings that public officials fear could spread the coronavirus throughout the wider community.

“It was a large number of people, meeting indoors and without masks. It’s a pretty straightforward thing. Clearly in excess of the order,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s permit department.

Spring Hill’s senior pastor, Bret Avlakeotes, said he will continue to host indoor services despite the county enforcement action.

“We’re not trying to prove anything, just meet people’s need for God. If people are uncomfortable, don’t come,” said Avlakeotes, who founded the church with his wife, Eve, in 1992. “We’ve gotten the warnings, but it’s kind of like do I listen to God and meet people’s spiritual needs as a pastor and church and listen to God and follow scripture, assemble of our own free will? Or is the state God?”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Board of Supervisors, was aghast at learning about what appeared to be a rogue church devoted to continuing services, lamenting that it could inspire others to follow suit, endangering the broader Sonoma County community.

“It’s appalling and also heartbreaking. Jesus taught us to take care of the most vulnerable among us and this puts the most vulnerable residents in our community at risk,” said Hopkins, who had an Episcopalian upbringing. “The problem is recklessness and bad behavior is contagious. I don’t know why you would encourage people to take risks when you are a respected and trusted leader. It’s irresponsible.”

The county permit department received its first complaint that Spring Hills was violating social distancing measures on Sept. 18, leading staff to contact church leadership to educate them and provide a copy of the public health order, said Paul Gullixson, the county’s communications manager. A second complaint, which included evidence from the Christian church’s Facebook page that it was holding indoor services with large groups of maskless parishioners, was filed Nov. 12, he said. That prompted another warning.

On Dec. 7, a third complaint was filed ahead of a planned, midweek Christmas-related gathering, Gullixson said. Enforcement staff again contacted church leadership about the public health order’s ban on indoor services. However, an on-site visit by code enforcement staff on Dec. 9 found the church to be in compliance with the health order because it was celebrating Advent in a permitted outdoor gathering, Gullixson said.

Finally, on Jan. 21, the county’s health order violation tip line fielded a complaint that Spring Hills Church continued to host indoor services. That report resulted in code enforcement staff visiting the church Sunday morning, when they documented the prohibited activities.

“I can tell you that I doubt it was a surprise when Spring Hills was notified that it was out of compliance. There’s been no shortage of communications and coverage about the stay-home order and restrictions on indoor activities,” Gullixson said.

County officials said they’ve received complaints about three other houses of worship in unincorporated Sonoma County for violating health orders, including for hosting indoor events, and lacking face masks and social distancing. Those reports, which the county keeps anonymous, arrived via its hotline, email address or online “SoCo Report It” platform. Each led to in-person visits from code enforcement staff to issue warnings and provide education, Gullixson said.

“None of these sites were visited twice. One warning and/or discussion was all it took,” he said.

‘Our authority is in question’

The county’s permit department and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office share jurisdiction over enforcing the pandemic-related public health order in unincorporated parts of the county. Within city limits, police departments and city enforcement teams are tasked with overseeing their individual jurisdictions, with violation complaints logged with each city’s hotlines or online platforms.

How to file a public health order complaint in Sonoma County

Phone: 1-833-SAFE-707

Email: safe707@sonoma-county.org

Online: SoCo Report It

Santa Rosa has since last summer received complaints about just over a half-dozen houses of worship, according to Adriane Mertens, a city spokeswoman. Code enforcement investigations remain open for three congregations that have had multiple reports filed against them — Victory Outreach Church, Calvary Chapel of the Rock and New Vintage Church — to bring them into compliance through educational site visits, she said.

Rohnert Park has received a few such public health order violation complaints against churches, said Tim Mattos, director of the city’s Department of Public Safety, with each resolved after the congregations were told of the complaint, he said. Petaluma, the other of the county’s three largest cities, has had none, according to Deputy Police Chief Brian Miller.

In unincorporated Sonoma County, the permit department remains the lead enforcement team in unincorporated Sonoma County. First-time violators of the order receive education and warnings from the county’s two enforcement agencies.

Since the start of December, the Sheriff’s Office said it has received just two reports of churches within its jurisdiction violating the county health order — each the result of a Press Democrat reporter calling to follow up on a tip from the public.

The first call, on Jan. 16, related to a Healdsburg-area church reportedly holding a large, indoor funeral. A deputy dispatched to Westside Community Church to investigate confirmed a service had occurred but ended before the deputy arrived, leading the deputy to provide COVID-19 safety education to the church’s pastor.

The second call, on Sunday, inquired about Spring Hills Church.

In June, Sonoma County allowed churches to reopen for indoor services at 25% capacity, or no more than 100 people. But in late August, Gov. Gavin Newsom launched the state’s four-tiered, color-coded system to limit spread of COVID-19, barring indoor religious services in counties in the most restrictive tier, labeled purple and indicating widespread transmission. Sonoma County has been stuck in the purple tier ever since because of heightened transmission rates and limited hospital bed capacity across the Bay Area.

Supervisor James Gore’s district includes Spring Hills Church, as well as the church just outside of Healdsburg that the Sheriff’s Office documented as having held the large, indoor funeral earlier this month. He said that the health order violations chip away at the very reason the county has restrictions in place.

“That’s disappointing to me,” Gore said in response to first hearing of Spring Hills Church’s repeat infractions. “If we don’t enforce what we promulgate, then our authority is in question.”

First-time violators of the order receive education and warnings from the county’s two enforcement agencies. Businesses defined as commercial establishments may be fined up to $1,000 for each citation. Businesses that have been fined to date include the organizer of a foot race in Healdsburg, a hotel in Bodega Bay and a gym in Sonoma.

But under the local health order, approved by the Board of Supervisors, the county’s approximately 300 religious organizations are considered noncommercial groups, the same as individuals. After initial warnings, such parties are issued a $100 fine, Wick said.

Gore said it may be time for the Board of Supervisors to review its health order and associated penalties if groups, including churches, are beginning to consistently defy rules intended to save people’s lives.

“I think we should relook at everything,” he said. “The fines are there, but the goal is to go over there the first time and give the opportunity to comply. A lot of this is news to me, but it makes me want to dig further into the complaint process and how we’re enforcing it.”

‘I don’t really worry about exposure’

On Sunday, journalists with The Press Democrat observed as more than 100 people, many without face masks, attended an afternoon service indoors at the expansive Spring Hills campus south of Windsor. The church’s two parking lots contained dozens of vehicles during the service, just the same as a morning service held right before it. The congregation also hosted an even earlier morning service, plus a Saturday evening worship gathering — altogether drawing upward of 400 people at four services on Saturday and Sunday, church leaders acknowledged.

A sheriff’s deputy dispatched to the church Sunday morning to follow up on a reporter’s inquiry about whether the office had received any complaints about Springs Hills Church described the day’s activities much differently in his official log. The report, obtained by The Press Democrat under a California Public Records Act request, describes the latter portion of the hourlong 9:30 a.m. service as a “small outdoor church gathering” with no more than 15 people, each wearing face masks and complying with social distancing and all COVID-19 guidelines.

The congregation was mainly creating an online livestream, the deputy’s written report reads. It stated everyone observed on the property was complying with the county public health order during the deputy’s 17-minute visit. The online and outdoor services were almost over for the day and the church would continue to educate and abide by the safety protocols, it continued.

The deputy’s report directly contradicts several violations documented with photos and written logs by the county permit department’s code enforcement team, which observed the same 9:30 a.m. church service the sheriff’s deputy wrote about in his report.

“Hosting indoors, too many people, not wearing masks, too close together. The basics,” Wick said of his team’s documentation, though he declined to make those records available to The Press Democrat.

The Sheriff’s Office account also conflicts with what a Press Democrat reporter saw from a church parking lot, where dozens of cars remained and attendees continued to stream out from Spring Hills Church’s main building.

Misti Wood, the Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, and Sgt. Juan Valencia, the department’s lead spokesperson, declined to answer repeated questions about the discrepancies between what the deputy documented and what others observed at Spring Hills Church on Sunday morning.

The last of Sunday’s services at Spring Hills Church was set to begin roughly 45 minutes after the deputy reported he left the campus. As the 11:15 a.m. start time approached, vehicles again filled the property’s two large parking lots, and parishioners — many choosing not to wear a mask, nor even carry one with them — headed inside to find their seats.

Sonoma Valley residents T.J. and Francesca Elam brought their daughter Ally, 5, to the late Sunday indoor service, where Francesca said she has attended church since she was a child. After church, the couple took their daughter to the property’s outdoor playground where she ran around with other children and eyed the monkey bars. Nearby, T.J. Elam removed his Oakland A’s face mask to enjoy a post-service cup of coffee and pastry while chatting with other members of the congregation.

“Today’s probably the biggest that I’ve seen in a long time,” he said of the crowd size, estimating at least 100 people or more indoors. “I don’t really worry about exposure too much in that sense. We keep calculated risks, right? You pick one or two things that keep you healthy and sane, and this is kind of our one or two things that we go to.”

He said about half of the rows of seats were removed from the church’s main building in an effort to meet countywide rules that promote social distancing, and an area inside deemed the “mask zone” requires people wear masks at all times. Under normal circumstances, the congregation averages about 1,500 people per weekend, according to a pastor, but since the latest stay-home order took effect, attendance has been “pretty light,” Elam said.

“It’s pretty spaced out, the rows. It’s not super packed in like cattle or anything,” he said.

Another parishioner, a woman wearing a mask who said she lives in Santa Rosa but declined to disclose her name, said she had no health or safety concerns about an indoor service during the pandemic — including where many other attendees chose not to wear a mask. As a result, she didn’t think twice about showing up to her church of several years, calling the decision to attend “important” and “super-essential.”

Worshipping without masks

County code enforcement staff who witnessed the 9:30 a.m. service were significantly more concerned by what they saw: six musicians without masks performing extended live Christian rock songs up on a stage, followed by Avlakeotes offering a lengthy sermon, also without a mask. Many parishioners went without masks, too, including in the “mask zone,” a pair of vertical garage doors were opened on one side of the building, where a handful of attendees sat beneath an overhang, exposed to the elements next to heat lamps. Despite the open doors, the church still failed to meet the requirements that would qualify it as an outdoor service, contributing to the fine.

“It was issued to the church for failure to enforce masking and social distance mandates, conducting indoor operations in violation of (the) ordinance,” Wick said. “I’m not here to judge people. The order states what the rule is and if someone violates the rule, we issue the citation.”

The congregation began holding the indoor services after the summer, when the weather began to turn colder, said a man who identified himself as Garrett and described himself as a longtime member of the church’s staff, but declined to define his role or provide his last name. He appears on the church’s Facebook page, which identifies him as Garrett Ward, one of the pastors.

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 kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette