An outbreak at a church in Oregon is raising questions about the oversight of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines at faith-based institutions. Some churches argue that it is government overreach to tell them how to worship, while others counter that it falls to churches to provide safe spaces to worship.
The need for social distancing among tight-knit communities is highlighted by the case of a 43-year-old woman, Sherry Zetzman, from Albany, Ore., who tested positive for the deadly strain of coronavirus after attending services at the Apostolic Life Center in Albany, one of several cases that spiked among members of that congregation in late March and early April.
It could not be confirmed whether Zetzman contracted the disease during a church service, as a result of being around church members at a different event or through exposure unconnected with the church.
Zetzman, whose severe asthma made her particularly vulnerable to COVID, had been receiving treatment at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis for weeks. On Tuesday, her family made the difficult decision to take her off the life support that had been keeping her stable. Zetzman’s mother, Terry Bushnell, says that her daughter died a short while afterward.
Bushnell, an Albany resident, believes that unsafe activities at the church are to blame for her daughter’s condition. Around the time Bushnell’s daughter fell ill, there were several other known cases of COVID-19 at the church.
“She went for Sunday services and also went to Bible study,” Bushnell said. “None of them are wearing masks. None of them are six feet apart.”
While no exact number of confirmed cases was provided by the church, a church official did say he was aware of multiple cases. Bushnell says she learned of more than a dozen members of the congregation who have contracted COVID-19.
The Apostolic Life Center is the subject of an April 13 complaint sent to Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, the state agency that investigates claims of unsafe work conditions.
That complaint reads: “No one is wearing a face covering or maintaining social distancing of at least six feet, including the pastor and singers during church services. The church has recently had a COVID-19 outbreak of at least approximately 14 people and has not made any accommodations to prevent the spread of the virus.”
Further details of the complaint could not be provided because a review is ongoing, according to an Oregon OSHA spokesperson, though it’s likely that little will come of the complaint because the church doesn’t have enough full-time employees to fall under the agency’s purview.
Nathaniel Johnson, an assistant at the church and the son of its head pastor, Dennis Johnson, says that the complaint isn’t a fair characterization of activities there.
Church officials say they have taken steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including canceling in-person worship for part of last year and pausing in-person services once they learned of “the recent spike” among churchgoers.
They’ve also been providing members of the congregation with remote options, using Facebook to livestream services three times per week.
However, church leaders also said they’re limited in just how much they can enforce social distancing protocols at in-person services.
“Pastors are not dictators that are in charge of their church,” said Johnson. “We preach, we do what we do, but it’s not like we’re in charge of the 100 people who happen to come in for a service.”
Instead, he said, it’s up to each individual to decide what level of risk they want to take.
“Some people have been very careful and some people have been less careful,” he continued. “But I think that’s an individual thing. I don’t like people being blamed for other people’s relatives getting sick.”
Oregon Health Authority guidelines say it’s the responsibility of churches to enforce social distancing. Some of the requirements that OHA puts on churches include rearranging seating to allow for six-foot spacing, as well as assigning a monitor to make sure people don’t hug or interact closely with people from other households.
In terms of seating, it’s unclear what steps have or haven’t been taken by the church. But in terms of physical interaction, Johnson says he and other church employees aren’t telling people not to hug, shake hands or otherwise interact physically.
“I think it should be legal for people to take a risk if they’re very, very sure that’s what they want,” Johnson said. “Especially with people they’ve known their whole life.”
OHA says that social distancing guidelines apply to more than just the individuals participating in certain events. These guidelines are in place to prevent the spread to larger communities.
“OHA expects that businesses, churches, workplaces and individual will do their part to ensure compliance with OHA’s COVID-19 guidance,” Heartquist said. “Complying with the guidance is a key part to keeping our communities safe and healthy.”
Scrolling back more than a month through the church’s livestreams on social media, no one captured on video was seen wearing a mask or other personal protective equipment during services. A March 25 video showing a youth convention held at the church shows dozens of teenagers sitting side by side in the seats, with unmasked singing and prayers being conducted in close proximity.
It was shortly after this time period that Bushnell says her daughter came down with COVID-19.
Head pastor Dennis Johnson said that he was handing out masks to attendees of that youth convention and encouraging their use.
“I told them to wear them while they’re inside,” he said. “If they weren’t wearing them, I guess that’s just a case of the youth doing what they want.”
The pastor also asserts that he’s told members of his congregation since the start of the pandemic that they should not come to in-person services if they are worried about the spread of COVID-19.
“I’ve been telling people from the very beginning of all this to use their best judgment,” Johnson said.
Bushnell asserts that members of the church told her daughter it was fine to come to in-person services and not wear a mask. Johnson said he doesn’t recall telling anyone that, though he is seen preaching without a mask during in-person services recorded on Facebook Live.
Bushnell says she knows of several other positive cases at the church in the past several weeks, though no outbreak is listed there by official sources. The church declined to provide a precise number for how many members currently have or recently had COVID-19.
Linn County, which is responsible for tracing local outbreaks and reporting them to OHA, initially said it was not aware of an outbreak at the church. However, Bushnell says she alerted local officials, including Albany’s mayor, Alex Johnson II. Johnson, in turn, alerted Albany’s emergency management team and Linn County Public Health.
“I support getting this dealt with,” Mayor Johnson said Tuesday morning. “COVID is a tragedy … (and) this just saddens me that this young woman is going to die because of this.”
The Oregon Health Authority and Oregon OSHA both say that the agencies aim for compliance rather than punishment, though they have the authority to impose fines or other administrative actions under Gov. Kate Brown’s executive orders from last spring.
“Prior to enforcement actions being taken, OHA always works first on education and awareness about the guidance,” said OHA spokeswoman Erica Heartquist in an email. “If OHA receives a complaint about a faith organization, the first step is for OHA’s Faith Liaison to reach out to the faith community to ensure they have … (the) education and support they may need to come into compliance. In many cases we find that faith communities may not be fully aware of all the guidance.”
One key aspect where OHA guidelines seem to be at odds with everyday activities at churches is in the requirements for choirs and band members.
“Singing in a choir has been linked to extensive spread of COVID-19,” OHA’s guidelines to religious institutions reads. It recommends outdoor performances for musical elements of a service, as well as masked singers and six-foot distancing for musicians.
None of these protocols are in place at the Apostolic Life Center, and Nathaniel Johnson, the church assistant, called this guidance “over the line.”
“I don’t have an official rule about singing,” he said. “And I’m definitely not going to tell people to sing quietly or anything. I think that’s one thing that has people angry about government overreach — to tell people what they can and can’t do in church. Singing is a very personal thing.”
Freedom vs. safety
The question of what limits can be placed on the freedom to worship is one that’s been raised repeatedly during the pandemic. In fact, a group of 10 churches from various Oregon cities sued Gov. Kate Brown last year over her executive order that put social gathering restrictions in place. The lawsuit asserted that the restrictions violate the First Amendment rights of people seeking to practice their religion.
Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matt Shirtcliff in May 2020 granted a preliminary injunction for the plaintiffs, essentially giving them a pass on having to follow Brown’s executive orders until a higher court made a ruling. That decision was based largely on the judge’s determination that Brown’s orders exceeded the statutory limit of 28 days for executive orders to stay in effect.
However, the Oregon Supreme Court overturned that decision in June and said Brown’s emergency orders can stay in place for longer than four weeks. The plaintiffs then voluntarily dropped their case.
In a similar case in California, a federal judge ruled that social gathering restrictions were “a valid exercise of state emergency powers” and did not violate a church’s constitutional rights. Judge John Mendez cited a U.S. Supreme Court case from more than 100 years ago in his ruling.
Nathaniel Johnson also asserted that an outside observer who’s looking at Facebook Live videos may not be aware of the specific circumstances of each individual — like who is from the same household and who might be vaccinated.
“You may see somebody who’s had the vaccine standing next to somebody who’s recovered from COVID, and neither of them are super-concerned about spreading it,” he said. “At this point, there’s nobody who doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Church outbreaks aren’t tracked the same as outbreaks at other sites are by the Oregon Health Authority. In fact, churches aren’t even required to report outbreaks like other types of businesses are. They don’t appear in weekly workplace outbreak reports unless they have 10 or more full-time employees.
Still, Bushnell says that it falls to faith leaders and institutions to enforce safety protocols rather than leave churchgoers to police themselves. She also says that the church’s messaging has led people to be unsafe, with frequent sermons about faith being the best protection from the disease.
“I believe in God, but you just don’t go doing that during a pandemic,” Bushnell said. “Their belief is, ‘Oh, God will protect us.’ For them to do that is so negligent to me.”
Bushnell also said that, while everyone’s allowed to make up their own mind about whether to attend events, it falls to community leaders such as pastors to provide clear and consistent messaging and safety guidance.
“My daughter, she’s got a mind of her own but she’s very impressionable,” Bushnell said. “She’s had health problems all her life, so when someone tells her something is safe she believes them.”
Bushnell’s daughter, who died on Tuesday, leaves behind a fiancé and teenage son.
“They told her it was OK, and when she realized it wasn’t OK and she got (COVID), she told me she thought she was going to die,” Bushnell said. “I don’t want my daughter’s death to be for nothing.”