California church creates ‘freedom fund’ for businesses open during COVID shutdown

A large Northern California church has established what it is calling a “freedom fund,” designed to dedicate thousands of dollars to local businesses as most of the state has landed back in an economic shutdown.

But the fund isn’t for businesses that have closed their doors. It’s intended chiefly for those that are defiantly open.

Pastor Greg Fairrington of Destiny Christian, a Pentecostal church in Rocklin, has been a vehement opponent of Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The church and its parish have continued to congregate indoors on Sundays despite multiple state-imposed orders directing places of worship to cease those gatherings and instead hold them outdoors or virtually.

Fairrington last week announced the creation of the “Placer Freedom Fund,” which Destiny Christian said in Sunday social media posts was at $20,000 and growing.

“The Placer Freedom Fund is a collaboration between Destiny Church and business leaders of the church to provide financial assistance to businesses who are struggling in the midst of the pandemic,” Destiny Christian spokesman Tanner Di Bella wrote in an emailed response to The Sacramento Bee.

Di Bella didn’t address specific questions from The Bee regarding the logistics of the fund, including whether any of it has been disbursed or an estimate of how many different businesses may receive aid.

The fund’s website includes a portal to apply. The two main requirements, aside from being located in Placer County: applying businesses “must have a physical storefront” and “must be open during the CA shutdown.”

“All businesses can apply for aid, but we want to help businesses that have current bills (payroll, etc.) that we can help with,” Di Bella wrote in response to a request for clarification.

The site also includes a long directory of local businesses, several of which The Bee confirmed are staying open in ways that don’t comply with the new stay-at-home order. That order came from Newsom and the state earlier this month in response to the worst coronavirus surge yet.

It isn’t clear which, if any, of these businesses have or may soon receive aid from the church-backed fund. Di Bella said Placer Freedom wants to support them “through patronage and community awareness,” not just direct monetary contributions.

What’s open in Placer County? More than is allowed to be

Many listed in church-supported directory are retail stores, which the state’s rules allow to stay open at 20% customer capacity; and restaurants, which are permitted within the regional stay-at-home order to continue operations for takeout and delivery service only.

But The Bee on Tuesday reached out to several bars and restaurants, and at least six of the 28 listed on the directory located across Rocklin, Granite Bay, Roseville and Lincoln are still seating people indoors to eat, according to employees who picked up the phone. Owners for those businesses couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Another eatery, Roseville’s House of Oliver wine bar, is open for outdoor dining but not indoor dining. House of Oliver faced off with but ultimately relented to state alcohol regulators last month after it planned a late-night “Newsom Hour” to protest the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, another recently introduced restriction.

Three others, for at least 10 total out of the 28, appear to be open for in-person eating or drinking, based on posts from those businesses’ social media accounts.

A taproom in Lincoln has stayed open, branding itself as “essential” on its social media pages. A bar and grill in Roseville has stayed open while continuing to host live music and trivia nights. And a pizzeria in Roseville has indicated that it is closed for dine-in services, but hosted Santa to take photos with children for two hours Monday evening. Neither Santa nor the kids in his lap were wearing masks, Instagram posts show.

The Bee could find only two other businesses on the directory explicitly stating that they are open only for takeout and delivery service, as called for in California’s health order — both of them coffee shops.

Also listed are dozens of establishments Placer Freedom says are “staying open safely and responsibly” including salons, spas, barbershops, gyms and recreation businesses. That final category includes a Rocklin ax-throwing range.

Destiny Cafe and a gym called Destiny Fitness, both affiliated with the church and part of its community center complex, are also on the directory and remain open as of this week.

The California Department of Public Health ordered personal care service businesses like spas and hair salons to close last week across the Greater Sacramento region as part of the new stay-at-home order. Most indoor entertainment venues as well as gyms were required to shut down for indoor activities in the purple tier of California’s reopening framework, as were places of worship. Placer was demoted to that tier, along with most counties statewide, a month ago.

Places of worship in Placer previously had the state health department’s green light to hold indoor services — with hard capacity limits and social distancing required — from early September through early November, when CDPH had the county in the red and orange tiers.

What is Destiny Christian Church?

Destiny, which has about 1,500 seats at its campus in Placer County, has a history of flouting California’s COVID-19 guidelines.

Fairrington has framed the conflict involving churches and shutdown orders, which has also been playing out in numerous court battles for months, as “a spiritual battle between good and evil.” In passionate sermons and in social media posts, Fairrington has for months called upon churches nationwide to open their doors immediately, claiming they have not just a constitutional right but a moral obligation to do so.

The church late last month hosted noted conservative figure Charlie Kirk as a guest speaker. At that point, Placer had been demoted back to the purple tier, meaning the state health order once again designated indoor services and gatherings as off-limits.

Videos and photos from Kirk’s social media pages nonetheless showed hundreds gathered in Destiny’s pews, with minimal social distancing and almost no mask use visible in the crowd.

During last Sunday’s services, held in-person at Destiny and streamed live online, Fairrington said his conversations with Kirk combined with Newsom’s new shutdown order inspired him to create the Placer Freedom fund.

Fairrington said Sunday that Destiny plans to hold five Christmas Eve services, and that he hopes the fund can help carry business owners through this difficult Christmas holiday season.

“The light of Christmas is divisive, and Christmas makes you make a choice: whether you’re going to walk in darkness or walk in the light,” he said.

Placer County suffers skyrocketing COVID-19 infections, deaths

Placer’s infection, hospitalization and death figures have all been on a sharp incline, part of an ongoing surge that can be traced back to at least early November. The county’s health director and interim public health officer, Dr. Robert Oldham, said in mid-November that Placer’s surge was “escalating much faster” than anticipated.

About a month later, the situation is worse. Nearly 3,000 cases — 30% of the 10-month total of 9,722 — have been reported in just the first half of December, Placer County’s health office reported Tuesday.

At least 94 Placer residents have died of COVID-19, with 22 of those deaths reported since Dec. 4.

During a service Sunday morning, Fairrington boasted to his applauding crowd that Placer County had 25% remaining ICU capacity. (The county’s COVID-19 dashboard at that time showed it at 24.3%.) He suggested this as proof that Placer should not be subject to the same tight restrictions as the rest of the region — it clears the state’s regional limit by 10%, the pastor pointed out.

But by the county’s next update one day later, available ICU availability in Placer plummeted to 10% — nearly 5% below the region-wide rate, which the state reported at 14.8% on Monday.

By Tuesday, Placer had zero ICU capacity.

“This ICU bed capacity metric does not take into account other beds that can be used for critical care during a surge,” Oldham said Tuesday during a Board of Supervisors meeting.

Placer County has not maintained its own local COVID-19 health order since spring, deferring instead to the statewide order. In September, the county’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to end the local emergency declaration, a decision that prompted the county’s public health officer at the time to resign.

The 13-county Greater Sacramento region, which includes Placer and all counties surrounding it, fell below 15% capacity in hospitals’ intensive care units Dec. 9, triggering the stay-at-home order in the region through at least New Year’s Eve.

The primary new restrictions are that restaurants must close for both indoor and outdoor dining and that personal care services must also shut down.

Opponents of the stay-at-home order have criticized the restrictions as arbitrary, unfair or both.

State health officials counter that some of the riskiest activities — restaurant dining, which requires taking one’s mask off, and indoor church worship, where large crowds convene — present a higher likelihood of spreading the virus than ever, simply because there are far more active cases out in the community than there were in months like September or October.

Board of Supervisors chair Bonnie Gore and county Supervisor Kirk Uhler, whose districts include parts of Roseville, have expressed strong criticism of the stay-at-home order and other pandemic restrictions from the Newsom administration. Uhler along with Supervisors Cindy Gustafson and Robert Weygandt during Tuesday’s meeting expressed frustration about the state’s response, asking Oldham to advocate with the state health office for more local control.

A Placer County spokesperson has deferred previous requests for comment by The Bee regarding Destiny Christian’s violations of COVID-19 protocols to the city of Rocklin — even though the county, not the city, governs public health matters.

The need for aid

Fairrington and Placer’s supervisors are undeniably correct on one point: Small businesses across California have been financially devastated by the pandemic and the associated shutdown orders, the vast majority of those entities through no fault of their own.

In the Sacramento region, countless restaurants have folded, closing permanently because they could not sustain profit or pay rent based alone on takeout and delivery service. Local salon owners worry that the latest round of shutdowns will be a death knell to the industry.

Gustafson, whose district includes East Placer and the North Lake Tahoe area, spoke of the hit that tourism and hospitality industries are taking this month as those who’d normally hit the slopes or lodges on the California side of the lake will instead hop the state line into Nevada, where restrictions are looser.

In March, the federal government passed a monumental $2.2 trillion economic bill called the CARES Act. More than $600 billion of that stimulus package went toward the Paycheck Protection Program, which in April began distributing low-interest, forgivable loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The PPP was designed to offer loans roughly equal to 2½ months of average payroll costs for applying small businesses. Destiny Christian itself applied for and received a loan of several hundred thousand dollars, to cover payroll for 140 employees.

That was more than eight months ago. Pent-up demand for financial assistance has increased in recent months and talks regarding a second stimulus effort have continued to stall in Congress.

The federal stimulus drought combined with renewed shutdowns leaves some business owners seeking assistance wherever it’s available. Sometimes that’s through local government campaigns, sometimes it’s through chambers of commerce and sometimes it’s through ad-hoc community efforts on crowdfunding websites like GoFundMe.

And now, seemingly, it’s through independent efforts like the Placer Freedom Fund.

“We love the businesses of our community, and we’re here to be a resource for you,” Fairrington said in a recent video announcing the fund. “We believe that we can make it through together. … If you have a need, we want to support you.”

The Bee’s Dale Kasler contributed to this story.

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