Pastor Larry Ihrig had a message for congregants as he greeted them with elbow bumps Sunday morning at the entrance to the sanctuary at Livermore’s Celebration Church.

“Welcome home again, guys. I wish we could hug, but we can’t do any of that.”

One congregant rejoiced as they arrived at the doors: “Thank the Lord. We’re finally back.”

More than 100 worshipers came out to the church Sunday morning for the first in-person service in more than two months, curtailed in March by the region’s public health orders, put in place nearly two and a half months ago to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Although Gov. Gavin Newsom issued new guidelines to guide the reopening of places of worship statewide, gatherings of any sort — including religious services — were still banned Sunday by local orders in the Bay Area.

While the vast majority of religious leaders followed the regulations and stuck to their online offerings, some decided to reopen their doors on Sunday in defiance of the orders.

In south San Jose, nearly every parking spot at the Calvary Chapel was taken Sunday morning for the first service back inside the congregation’s church since the start of restrictions in March.

Last week, Pastor Mike McClure vowed that he would reopen the church for regular service regardless of the status of local orders mandating public closure, and that he would “never” close the doors to his church again.

“Germs are important, yes, absolutely,” McClure said. But, quoting a conversation he said he had with a doctor recently, saving a soul is more important, and “only Jesus Christ can save a soul.”

in Livermore, Ihrig said he sees his church as offering an essential service to his community — spiritual counsel that the government cannot provide during this painful and chaotic time.

The church implemented recommendations laid out by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month, spacing rows of chairs six feet apart, instructing congregants to wear face coverings as they entered the building, sanitizing surface areas before the service and limiting capacity in its auditorium to 100 people while providing overflow space in its fellowship room and courtyard.

“I feel like we’re following all the protocols we were told to follow and that we’re as good as any other business following the guidelines — possibility even a little better,” Gary Confenti, a member of the church for 16 years, said as he welcomed worshipers into the building.

This new guidelines issued this week allowed attendance at places of worship but limited them to 25% of capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees — whichever is lower — and requiring individual county health departments to give their approval.

After months of substantial uniformity, the Bay Area’s reopening will look a little more disjointed this week, including when it comes to places of worship.

While San Mateo County is allowing places of worship to reopen on Monday, San Francisco and Marin counties have announced religious institutions can reopen in two weeks. Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa county officials have not yet decided when they will permit people to gather in-person for religious purposes.

During his sermon on Sunday morning, Ihrig told his congregants that he was “doing what God told Celebration to do” but that they should not judge other religious leaders who are taking a more cautious approach.

“I am in full support of every pastor and every leader with the decision they’re making concerning the direction God gives them,” he said. “The Bible never called us to uniformity.”

Michelle Ward, 42, of Livermore, attended the service with her husband Todd and two younger children. The church that the family normally attends was closed Sunday, so the Wards “came out to support” Ihrid’s decision to reopen and worship with others, Michelle said.

“Church is much more than listening to a sermon online. We believe fellowship is important and our kids need to be involved,” Michelle said.

As the family entered the building Sunday, Todd Ward questioned why they were required to wear a mask if they would also be maintaining six feet of distance between themselves and others while inside the auditorium. Ihrig said that following CDC guidelines was part of the way to keep the church open.

No law enforcement officers were seen Sunday at either church, even as the services violated public-health orders.

Inside the newly-remodeled Calvary Chapel in San Jose, dozens of people gathered together without masks and many of them ignored social distancing requirements.

Danny Perez, a 37-year-old security manager, said he wasn’t afraid of contracting coronavirus at the church he has attended for 15 years. Perez was not wearing a mask — he doesn’t wear one most of the time, he said; he takes countywide health guidelines as simple suggestions.

“If Congress and the government really thought it was necessary they would have enacted a law,” Perez said of health requirements. “I’m not trying to infringe on anyone’s rights. If I feel like I need to wear a mask then I’ll wear it. But I’m not afraid about spreading the virus.”

For Perez, churches are as essential as health care. “The church is a hospital,” he said. “Not in a traditional sense, but spiritually.”


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