Coronavirus: Newbury Park church faces backlash for defying physical distancing orders amid outbreak

NEWBURY PARK, THOUSAND OAKS (KABC) -- Despite orders restricting gatherings and non-essential businesses, a church in the Thousand Oaks area held an in-person Palm communion on Sunday.

Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park streamed its service online but opened its sanctuary doors afterward for communion. Hundreds of parishioners, some who are not part of the usual congregation, observed social distancing rules as they waited in line to enter and receive the sacramental bread and wine.

Pastor Rob McCoy defended the move, saying it's a matter of religious freedom for the church to practicing their faith.

"If rights aren't protected, if they're not exercised, they're lost. And I couldn't in good conscious say that the church is nonessential. I don't believe that, I can't stand by that," McCoy said.

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Everyone kept 6 feet apart, only 10 chairs were set up for those inside and the church limited how many people were allowed in at a time. The communion bread and wine and were served in individual containers.

"I feel very safe to be in there. I think it was safer than going to the supermarket," parishioner Vicky Miller said.

The church also had curbside communion set up for those who didn't want to leave their vehicles, many of which are seniors.

McCoy said during the service, a handful of angry protesters also turned out.

"This is a blatant disregard of not only our laws but of public health," one Newbury Park resident said. "You could be standing next to someone and kill them two weeks later and have no idea you've done this."

McCoy said he alerted the Ventura County Sheriff's Department as to what he was doing and invited them in to observe.

The pastor who also served on the Thousand Oaks City Council has now resigned from the council amid the controversy over the communion.

Many parishioners said they appreciate the stand he is taking in support of his faith and fellowship.

"This is too important to our religious freedom," Gina Conti said. "If we don't have religious freedom, what we do we have in this life?"

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McCoy said he typically holds communion on Good Friday and said he plans to carry on that tradition at the end of this week.

California has recorded nearly 13,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections and at least 320 deaths, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Los Angeles County announced 15 new deaths Sunday - for a total of 132. The state's largest county also identified 1,374 new cases over a 48-hour period, bringing the total number to 5,940.

Riverside last week became the first California county to recommend residents wear masks in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus before hospitals become overwhelmed with an anticipated surge of patients. Los Angeles and counties in the San Francisco Bay Area followed suit by urging residents to cover their mouths and noses. And San Diego County on Saturday ordered all essential workers to wear masks.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco urged residents to follow the new rules after his department lost two deputies to COVID-19. "I am asking all of you to honor them by staying at home," Bianco said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday announced California has cut its COVID-19 testing backlog by more than two-thirds, but has still managed to test less than one half of 1% of the state's nearly 40 million residents.

California has tested 126,000 people. Of those, 13,000 test results were still pending as of Friday. That's down from the 59,500 pending results that were reported Thursday.

The coronavirus mainly is spread though coughs and sneezes. For most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Newsom has not stepped up statewide enforcement of his stay-at-home order. But he warned people to obey local authorities.

"The state is always prepared to do more. I just want to encourage people, don't force our hand in that respect," Newsom said during his Saturday briefing. "We cannot allow cabin fever to come in. We cannot allow people to start congregating again."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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