The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Oregon church sued over covid-19 restrictions. Now, an outbreak there has sickened 74.

The photo from March 6 shows vials of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine at a hospital pharmacy. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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In early April, dozens of maskless churchgoers in northwest Oregon stood onstage singing and clapping inside a packed indoor venue for Easter Sunday service. The Peoples Church, which previously sued the state over coronavirus restrictions, hosted three similar indoor services that day, each lasting a little over an hour.

Days later, the state’s health authority began investigating a potential outbreak at the Salem church.

Now, the Oregon Health Authority says that at least 74 people associated with the church have tested positive for the coronavirus — one of the state’s largest workplace outbreaks.

In a statement, the church’s leaders attributed the outbreak to a recent rise in covid-19 cases in Marion County, Ore. “We are concerned about the covid-19 surge in Oregon,” executive pastor Tom Murray said in an email to The Washington Post. “This statewide increase has impacted our entire region, including our church family.”

Murray said the church, which has held in-person services throughout the pandemic, intends to continue with in-person ceremonies on Sunday.

Superspreader events are the leading cause of coronavirus transmission in the U.S. Here’s what they entail, and why they are so dangerous. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Oregon has traced other coronavirus outbreaks to churches. Last June, at least 236 members of a Pentecostal church in eastern Oregon tested positive for the virus. Last month, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health agency received a complaint on an Apostolic church that allegedly failed to enforce masks and social distancing during services; at least 14 parishioners were infected, the Albany Democrat-Herald reported.

Last May, the Peoples Church and nine other Oregon churches sued the state in an attempt to override Gov. Kate Brown’s (D) “Stay Home, Save Lives” coronavirus order that capped statewide gatherings at 25 attendees. The measure did not exempt religious services. The group of churches argued that the restrictions violated their constitutional rights on freedom of religion.

Peoples Church lead pastor Scott Erickson told the Salem Reporter at the time that drive-in and online services did not offer that same worship experience.

“When you are in God’s presence and able to worship, there is something special about that atmosphere,” Erickson told the local paper. “And when you can’t be together in that kind of moment you miss the opportunity to feel God’s presence.”

The following month, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled against the churches’ in their suit over Brown’s orders. In November, though, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against strict restrictions on religious institutions.

The Peoples Church, which according to Erickson has some 3,700 members who attend regularly, hosts three in-person services every Sunday. The church’s Facebook page shows hundreds of maskless churchgoers shoulder-to-shoulder, both onstage and by the pews.

The Oregon Health Authority began investigating the outbreak tied to the Peoples Church on April 6.

On April 14, Murray posted a Facebook video encouraging those who attended in-person services to wear masks and practice social distancing “in the space we have on our main level and our balcony,” as well as to stay home if feeling sick. In the video, Murray addressed recent illnesses at the church but did not mention the coronavirus.

“This is a faith community where people deeply care for one another,” Murray said. “We will get through this.”

Then, during an April 18 in-person service, Murray announced Erickson and his wife, Bonnie, who serves as the Women’s Ministries & Life Zones supervisor at the church, had been hospitalized after contracting the virus.

According to the report released by the Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday, the most recent case tied to the outbreak at the church was reported on April 29.

In his email to The Post, Murray said the church’s covid-19 protocols include hand sanitizer stations, guests seated in every other row and cleanings between services. Signs requiring face masks and social distancing are posted, he said, and complimentary masks are provided upon request.

Aaron Corvin, a spokesman with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told the Salem Reporter that the agency had not received any complaints about the church violating covid-19 rules.

Christina Vejar, a Salem resident, told The Post in a message that both her parents, who are Peoples Church congregants, tested positive for the virus. They are now recovering at home.

“I cannot be sure if they got it while at church services or from a friend who tested positive, who also attends church services there,” Vejar, 48, said.

“I have heard many stories via the Nextdoor app of people who were sick or hospitalized, particularly following Easter services,” Vejar added.

Despite the outbreak, Murray said the church expects to move forward with its in-person Mother’s Day services on Sunday.

“Pastor [Scott] Erickson is looking forward to sharing a Mother’s Day message in our online and in-person worship services this Sunday,” Murray said.