A conservative evangelical Christian singer with a history of defying COVID-19 health mandates plans three days of New Year's gatherings in the Los Angeles area, including stops on skid row and at a tent city in Echo Park, raising fears that the events will be viral "super-spreaders."
Skid row activists plan a car blockade to stop Sean Feucht — a Redding, Calif., volunteer pastor and failed Republican congressional candidate — and his followers from staging what is billed as a "massive outreach" Wednesday evening on skid row, at the height of Los Angeles County's pandemic crisis. Feucht's plans come as California, facing record case counts and a severe shortage of intensive care hospital beds, has extended its stay-at-home order.
Feucht began hosting "Let Us Worship" open-air concerts nationwide to push back against government restrictions on religious gatherings, then broadened his focus to cities that erupted in protest after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Feucht's events have featured hundreds of maskless worshipers tightly packed together and singing and dancing. He has another homeless outreach planned Thursday at Echo Park Lake, site of nearly 100 homeless tents, followed by a New Year's Eve party and concert at a church parking lot in Valencia.
In a YouTube video —part of an extensive social media campaign to promote the L.A. dates — Feucht said a couple of thousand glow sticks had been ordered for a bash he predicted could rival his worship service this year on the National Mall, which drew hundreds of people.
Charles Karuku, a Feucht associate who travels with the singer, said they tell followers to heed government health guidelines, "but we are not law enforcement. It's up to the people how they choose to come."
But Stephen "Cue" Jn-Marie, pastor of Church Without Walls, a skid row congregation, said, "We know based on his track record whatever he's going to do is going to be maskless." Jn-Marie is organizing the car blockade with Los Angeles Community Action Network, a skid row anti-poverty activist group.
"The problem we’re facing is even prior to the stay-at-home order, people come into the community and say they're bringing resources but what they're bringing is the disease," said Jn-Marie, adding that the outreach event could undo the self-help measures the skid row community took, including distributing masks and street wash stations and sponsoring testing events. "It doesn't take thousands to start an outbreak."
The homeless population in Los Angeles has generally avoided serious COVID outbreaks throughout most of the pandemic, although it has seen a significant uptick in recent weeks, in keeping with the wider surge in infections nationwide.
The California Poor People's Campaign wrote a letter calling for city and county officials to quash Feucht's events. The campaign offered a legal justification for enforcement of county health orders, but Los Angeles has not generally used police powers on individuals to back up pandemic restrictions, and homeless outreach events do not require permits.
"Police know how to show up and issue orders to disperse an illegal gathering," said Nell Myhand, co-chair of the California Poor People's Campaign.
Asked for a response to the enforcement question, mayoral spokesman Alex Comisar said Mayor Eric Garcetti implored everyone to wear masks and practice social distancing.
L.A. Councilman Kevin de León, who represents skid row, said his office and the mayor's staff will be on skid row Wednesday morning distributing personal protective equipment and sanitation kits to homeless people, but did not comment on possible enforcement of county COVID-19 health orders.
"Our expectation is that those attending the scheduled outreach event take steps to care for our community and protect vulnerable Angelenos on skid row by wearing masks and honoring social distancing guidelines," de Leon said in a statement.
Feucht has upcoming events scheduled in Orange County and San Diego, according to his website. Tom Grode, a skid row resident and activist who began petitioning the city a month ago to stop the skid row event , called Feucht's plan to come to Los Angeles "incredibly foolish ... divisive and dangerous."
"The problem is any of these events could get weird in different ways," Grode said.
Cathy Callahan, who has been following Feucht's career online with dismay, spent two hours Tuesday calling the Los Angeles Police Department, the mayor's office, county health officials and the state attorney general, asking if they were going to shut the New Year's events down. She said she was bounced from office to office without receiving an answer.
”If not, why is California issuing lockdowns or stay-at-home orders?" Callahan asked.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.