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Spring Hills Church agrees to stop indoor services after fines for violating Sonoma County public health order

A north Santa Rosa church that refused to curtail large, indoor services in defiance of Sonoma County health orders and state guidelines agreed to change course Sunday after the county fined the church twice over the weekend.

Spring Hills Church Pastor Bret Avlakeotes said the church would yield to the county’s direction to move services outside while holding out hope — and leading his congregation in prayer — for a U.S. Supreme Court intervention.

“We’re not looking to prove anything, and we’re not looking for a fight, alright?” Avlakeotes told his congregation Sunday. “If the county’s going to come in and is going to fight us all the way, then we’ll probably let them win this one. We’ll go outside.”

Avlakeotes, who announced the new direction Sunday during three indoor services at the Fulton Road church, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

The decision ends a showdown between the county and the church, the first religious entity in the county to be fined for flouting health orders that prohibit indoor worship services to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The church was fined $100 last week following months of warnings from county officials, who have been in communication with church leaders since in September 2020. After Avlakeotes made a public promise to continue indoor services, county enforcement staff slapped the church with a second $100 fine during a Saturday night service, and issued a third $100 fine Sunday morning, according to county officials.

Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, expressed relief at the church’s pledge to halt indoor services.

“I think that is good news,” said Hopkins. “I think it would be a relief, honestly, to not have to be in a combative relationship with a local, faith-based organization.”

Despite California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s move to lift the statewide shutdown last week, indoor church services remain prohibited in Sonoma County until it advances out of the purple tier, the most restrictive in the state’s coronavirus reopening plan, according to county and state guidance available online.

On Sunday morning, dozens of parishioners poured into Spring Hills Church, many without masks, in the wake of Avlakeotes’ promise to carry on with indoor services. County leaders decried the pastor’s stand as irresponsible and dangerous, but many parishioners and other supporters of the church praised his decision on social media channels.

Avlakeotes noted the controversy had increased the visibility of Spring Hills and wondered aloud whether more people were tuning into the church’s services due to the buzz.

“If you didn’t know that Spring Hills existed in Sonoma County, you do now,” he said.

Avlakeotes encouraged parishioners to read a story published Saturday in The Press Democrat, and online comments, and then he explained the origins of the church’s intersection with county rules.

After hosting outdoor services throughout the summer, Avlakeotes said the church shifted to a hybrid model, with large doors opened to a patio area to allow for greater airflow and spacing.

For Permit Sonoma, the county agency tasked with enforcing the orders issued by Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, the violation was straightforward.

“I’m not here to judge people,” Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said last week. “The order states what the rule is and if someone violates the rule, we issue the citation.”

County enforcement officials hit the church with second fine Saturday evening, when county staff witnessed 65 people taking part in an indoor ceremony. One-third of the parishioners weren’t wearing masks, Sonoma County communications manager Paul Gullixson said via email.

More than 150 attended a midmorning service Sunday, Gullixson added, prompting the third citation. Hopkins, citing county staff reports, said few people were wearing masks during the service Sunday.

Sonoma County contact tracers have linked 138 coronavirus cases to religious gatherings, including 46 to church services, said Kate Pack, the county’s lead epidemiologist. But Pack said there are likely more cases linked to religious practices, as some who have contracted COVID-19 have refused to cooperate with contact tracers or could not be reached.

Avlakeotes told his congregation Sunday that church officials had hoped the move to an indoor-outdoor model would coincide with a statewide loosening of restrictions or a U.S. Supreme Court decision backing the freedom to worship. Leading his congregation in prayer, Avlakeotes sought protection for Spring Hills Church and all churches in Sonoma County and for the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene for churches nationwide.

“We pray for the freedom to worship,” he said.

He prayed, also, for a strong relationship with Sonoma County, saying “we don’t want it to be funky or sidewise.”

Hopkins was hopeful, too, although she said via text message that the county has not gotten confirmation of the church’s intention to stop indoor services.

“The county doesn’t want to have to be in an antagonistic relationship,” she said. “At the end of the day, we want to keep people safe and healthy. I appreciate that it seems as if the church is taking steps to do that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy

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