Coronavirus outbreak strikes L.A. megachurch that defied public health orders

SUN VALLEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 13, 2020 - - Grace Community Church parishioners make their way to Sunday service in Sun Valley on September 13, 2020. The church held a packed morning service today, defying a court order directing them to refrain from holding indoor services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. L.A. County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff sided with public health officials, who took legal action last month to enforce health orders against Grace Community Church, an evangelical congregation in Sun Valley that has been holding Sunday worship services indoors since July 26. The majority of the parishioners refused to wear a mask.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
People head to Sunday service at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley on Sept. 13. The church has regularly held packed morning services, defying a court order directing it to refrain from holding indoor services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

An evangelical megachurch in Los Angeles that has defied L.A. County public health orders and held indoor worship services for the last several weeks has been struck with an outbreak of the coronavirus, public health officials confirmed Thursday.

Grace Community Church in Sun Valley has seen three confirmed cases, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Public health officials are investigating the outbreak and said they will work closely with the church to help limit transmission of the coronavirus in the church, which has an estimated attendance of 7,000. The county did not provide any further details about whether the cases were confirmed among staff or worshipers. Attorneys for Grace Community Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Under the county health officer’s order, places of worship must report to the county Public Health Department when at least three coronavirus cases are identified among staff or worshipers within a span of 14 days so the agency can determine whether there is an outbreak.

The conservative megachurch announced in late July that it would restart indoor services — despite a county public health order barring any house of worship from doing so. Thousands of people have attended services, with most not wearing face coverings as they sit side by side indoors, or close together outside under a tent, according to public health officials.

Pastor John MacArthur has repeatedly told the congregation that no one from the church has gotten sick with COVID-19 and claims the pandemic threat is overblown. The church does not screen congregants for symptoms before they enter or require them to follow any protocols, according to court records and interviews with members.

MacArthur has been increasingly skeptical of the pandemic, a viewpoint he has shared from the pulpit. He and his attorneys have argued that it is their constitutional right to hold church services and that meeting together in person is a crucial part of how Grace Community Church's congregants exercise their religion.

Since mid-August, when county officials sued the church, the parties have been in a heated court battle over the church's unwillingness to follow the county public health order.

In early September, an L.A. County Superior Court judge ruled that the church must stop holding indoor worship services and also must require congregants to wear face coverings and adhere to social distancing practices when worshiping outdoors.

The church has refused to follow that ruling, and county attorneys have asked a judge to hold the church in contempt. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Nov. 13.

County officials said the vast majority of religious institutions continue to hold services either online or outdoors with public health safeguards in place.

"The county went to court only after significant efforts to work with the leaders of Grace Community Church to protect the health of congregants and the surrounding community proved unsuccessful," county officials said in a statement.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.