The San Francisco city attorney’s office told the archdiocese of San Francisco this week to stop holding “multiple indoor large gatherings at its facilities,” in violation of the city’s health order prohibiting such assemblies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After multiple rounds of correspondence between the city and the archdiocese over the gatherings, City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent a cease-and-desist letter on Monday, ordering the archdiocese to discontinue the indoor religious services it has held in recent weeks or risk a temporary restraining order from the city.
With COVID-19 cases erupting nationally, officials were concerned about the archdiocese’s “alarming failure to follow common-sense safety protocols” meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Herrera said in the letter.
The church responded on Tuesday, saying it would “continue to work cooperatively with the city as it has done for the past three months by complying with the health orders currently in effect” and that “the archbishop has now notified his priests that the order limiting religious services to outdoors with no more than 12 people remains in force.”
Herrera’s letter to the archdiocese indicates the city received multiple complaints about Catholic churches opening to the public for indoor services. One complaint suggested St. Francis of Assisi at 610 Vallejo St. posted signs stating Mass would resume on June 14.
The city received multiple complaints on June 14 that SS Peter & Paul’s Church at 666 Filbert St. “held public mass six times” that day, Herrera’s letter said, with people entering and exiting the church.
The city also received a complaint that the Star of the Sea church at 4420 Geary Blvd. opened for Mass on June 14, which Herrera said was confirmed in the church’s bulletin and in a video posted to YouTube “where neither the priest giving the sermon nor the altar boy are wearing face coverings.”
Those complaints prompted an investigation by the city attorney’s office that found multiple instances where the archdiocese’s churches were holding services in violation of the health order, including some indoor gatherings of more than 20 people.
“Upon reviewing the reports of multiple San Francisco parishes holding indoor mass over the last few weeks, (San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón) has concluded that the archdiocese is putting not only its parishioners but the larger community at risk of serious illness and death,” Herrera said. “Dr. Aragón finds quite troubling the failures to comply with the face covering health order that are endangering not only parishioners, but particularly the children who serve as altar boys.”
The archdiocese’s letter responding to Herrera said the churches would enforce social distancing and face-covering requirements at any outdoor service and would continue to live-stream services. Mike Brown, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said in an email that “there has been some confusion” regarding city health orders “and conflicting timelines, which do change and sometimes at the last minute.” Herrera’s letter states the archdiocese was contacted multiple times — including by Aragón directly — to convey the city’s reopening plans, which have been modified to reflect the local dynamics of the pandemic.
“Regardless our intention has always been to conform to what we understand to be the City orders and timelines. We reiterated that again in our response to the City Attorney. The Archbishop is also seeking a meeting with a senior city official to discuss all of this,” Brown said.
Indoor religious services with more than 12 people remain off-limits under San Francisco’s health directives, in part because of the length of time congregants gather indoors and the likelihood that they will “touch seats, pews, and other objects,” Herrera said in his letter to the archdiocese. They also often can involve worship services that include singing, which can transmit the virus via droplets that travel farther than when a person is breathing or speaking quietly.
The city, however, “recognizes the importance of religious services to many for spiritual health especially during these challenging times,” Herrera said in the letter, and has encouraged religious groups to hold services over the internet or outdoors, with proper social distancing and face-covering restrictions.
San Francisco officials are closely monitoring public health data related to the pandemic following a recent spike in cases and hospitalizations. Currently, the city is permitting things like indoor retail with a limited number of customers, as well as most outdoor businesses, where the risk of transmission is lower.
After initially planning to accelerate the reopening of certain businesses, including hair salons, museums and outdoor bars, San Francisco officials were forced to pause their plans.