Part rally, part concert and part worship session, the gathering that brought thousands to the west steps of California’s Capitol building over Labor Day weekend flew in the face of pandemic-related mask and social distancing requirements, as seen in photos and video clips circulating online.
Yet the “Let Us Worship” event in Sacramento was permitted by state law enforcement, and it proceeded for its full allotted time slot of 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. The California Highway Patrol, the law enforcement body with jurisdiction of the Capitol grounds and in charge of granting event permits there, chose not to intervene to disperse the crowd or enforce state-issued social distancing rules.
The CHP, in a statement emailed to The Sacramento Bee late Monday evening, acknowledged most of the event’s participants didn’t follow state COVID-19 requirements relating to social distancing, but said the officer serving as on-scene manager decided to let it “continue to conclusion” Sunday evening because of “the large number of people present for this event and the fact that it was a relatively short event.”
“Other factors involved in this decision include factoring in the resources needed to disperse a crowd of this size, safety of the participants, the time it would take, as well as other protest events in the Sacramento area,” said the statement sent by CHP spokeswoman Jaime Coffee.
The event’s organizer and headliner Sean Feucht, who is a Christian musician, activist and former congressional candidate with ties to a controversial megachurch in his hometown of Redding, proudly declared in social media posts the Sacramento stop of his “Let Us Worship” tour pulled in a crowd of 12,000, calling that the “official” count from law enforcement.
In reality, the CHP said it estimated attendance for the event somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 people — one-quarter the size mentioned by Feucht, but roughly triple the capacity for which it had been permitted.
The Let Us Worship rally had a permit allowing for 1,000 participants at the west Capitol steps, but as the CHP’s event permitting website explains, the state isn’t implementing numerical attendance caps for outdoor gatherings protected by the First Amendment. That includes activities “designed for political and religious expression,” such as Sunday’s rally, though any event on Capitol grounds must still give a size estimate as part of the permitting process.
However, the CHP website clearly states that individuals, or small groups from the same household, are still required to stay at least 6 feet away from each other in accordance with coronavirus protocols, and that failure to maintain that distance “constitutes a violation of the permit and attendees are required to vacate state property.”
That didn’t happen Sunday.
“Prior to the event start, the Capitol Permit Officer indicated those who were showing up at the Capitol were socially distancing,” the CHP said in its emailed statement. “Additionally, the permit officer was walking around the crowd verbally reminding people.”
The CHP added that the permit officer “provided the organizer with a printed statement of what should be said regarding social distancing,” and that one of the event’s organizers “did make statements to the participants regarding the need for social distancing.”
If that’s the case, those statements were almost entirely ignored for the duration of the gathering. The Let Us Worship event’s website as of Tuesday morning was topped with a video showing Sunday’s celebration in its entirety. During the three-hour archived live stream, the crowd stays packed, with no effort to comply with distancing guidelines.
“California showed up. Who cares about the temperature? Who cares about the smoke? I guess we’re still in a pandemic, but we’re worshiping,” Feucht said about an hour into the rally, video shows, referring to the state’s record-setting heat wave and poor air quality from massive wildfires burning statewide. “Turn to someone next to you and say, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’”
Earlier in the pandemic, the CHP temporarily stopped issuing permits for protests due to violations of the statewide stay-at-home order, which Gov. Gavin Newsom put in place on March 19. One early May protest at the Capitol calling for the removal of the stay-at-home order drew a crowd of about 1,000 people and resulted in 32 arrests, mostly for failure to disperse.
The CHP rescinded its ban in June amid lawsuits and resumed issuing permits, but said in its renewed guidance that physical distancing is mandatory and facial coverings are “strongly recommended.” Mask use has been mandatory in many public settings across all of California since mid-June, including any outdoor scenario in which 6 feet of social distance can’t be kept.
“Based on the expected number of event participants and the location of the event, the CHP determined proper physical distancing could be achieved,” the CHP wrote of its decision to grant a permit for the Let Us Worship rally. “During the event, the crowd size grew to a number greater than the original estimate.”
This happened two days after Newsom pleaded on Twitter: “Yes, it’s Labor Day weekend. No, that does not mean #COVID19 has gone away. BE SMART. Don’t gather in large groups. Practice physical distancing. Wear a mask. Your actions this weekend can literally save lives.”
Newsom hasn’t weighed in on Sunday’s large event at the Capitol. Reached for comment Monday, the governor’s office deferred to the CHP.
The state law enforcement agency says its permitting protocol is consistent with the California Department of Public Health’s guidance on protests and religious services, but that its Capitol event attendance guidelines will continue to be reviewed and assessed in accordance with CDPH protocols at least once every three weeks.
Who is Sean Feucht?
Feucht has described himself as a “missionary, artist, speaker, author, activist, and the founder of multiple worldwide movements.” He ran for a U.S. Congress seat as a Republican against California Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, earlier this year, placing a distant third in the March primary election behind Garamendi and Republican Tamika Hamilton.
Feucht is connected to Redding’s Bethel Church, whose parishioners believe in faith healing, and has recorded music under that church’s record label.
In July, Feucht held a large gathering at the Sundial Bridge in Redding, where hundreds came together for song and prayer. Feucht said in an emailed statement at the time that “masks were made available, social distancing was encouraged, and the gathering was held outside as an extra precaution” for that gathering, though video of that one also showed very little social distancing and almost no masks worn. Shasta County health officials condemned the event.
The Let Us Worship series of events isn’t affiliated with Bethel, but started by Feucht on his own earlier in the summer. It has since passed through numerous West Coast cities.
The day after Sunday’s concert in Sacramento, Feucht headed to Seattle for another planned worship rally, this one set for Gas Works Park. The city temporarily closed the park before the event, with parks and recreation officials saying in a statement that it was closed “due to anticipated crowding that could impact the public health of residents,” not specifically mentioning the planned event, as reported by the Seattle Times.
Hundreds of people — unmasked, packed tightly — gathered instead in a parking lot across the street from Gas Works Park on Monday evening, according to the Seattle Times and video posted to Twitter by Feucht, who also tweeted that the event had to be rebranded as a “worship protest” for “legal reasons.”
A main contention by Feucht and others involved in or supportive of recent worship gatherings flouting COVID-19 restrictions is that they should be allowed to proceed because other forms of protests involving large groups of people have taken place.
“They don’t say the same thing about the Black Lives Matter movement. They don’t say the same thing about antifa,” Feucht said, according to the Seattle newspaper, in response to criticism of his events.
Those remarks come as demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice have swept through the nation following the late May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and again following last month’s shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Feucht has events planned this month in both cities, according to his website.
In late August, about a week before Feucht’s event in Sacramento, several peaceful daytime protests in response to the Blake shooting gave way to more aggressive, destructive demonstrations at night, including smashed windows, graffiti on government buildings and threats of physical violence against a local news crew.
As protesters marched in large groups, with the majority wearing masks as seen in photos and videos from The Bee, a heavy law enforcement presence and crowd control barriers blocked the Capitol grounds.
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