Los Angeles County reverses ban on indoor religious services after Supreme Court decision

Los Angeles County health officials reversed a ban on indoor religious gatherings Saturday after the Supreme Court sided with a Southern California church in its challenge to state coronavirus rules.

The change comes during a time of record-breaking infection rates in the county, with more than 100,000 new cases confirmed in just the last eight days. That brings the total cases recorded since the start of the pandemic to 610,372. A total of 8,817 COVID-19 patients in L.A. County have died.

During the summer, Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church sued over the state’s prohibition of in-person worship services in counties with the highest coronavirus infection rates, describing the ban as a violation of freedom of expression of religion. But a federal court upheld California’s ban on indoor services, allowing only outdoor gatherings amid troubling surges in cases and deaths.

However, on Thursday, the high court issued a two-sentence decision vacating a Sept. 2 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which upheld state restrictions on worship.

The California Department of Public Health currently lists a ban on any indoor religious services in counties within the purple tier. That stage of the state’s reopening plan is reserved for those with the highest infection rates, when the virus is considered “widespread” among the local population.

Meanwhile, counties in with the second-highest case rates — those in the so-called red tier — houses of worship can only host gatherings indoors with certain modifications and a limit to 25% capacity or 100 people (whichever is less). Those with lower infection rates have slightly looser restrictions.

On Saturday, the L.A. County Department of Public Health released new guidance in light of the Supreme Court decision siding with Harvest Rock Church against the state rules.

“Places of worship are permitted to offer faith-based services both indoors and outdoors with mandatory physical distancing and face coverings over both the nose and mouth that must be worn at all times while on site,” reads a statement released by health officials Saturday.

The new guidelines also call on houses of worship to maintain a physical distance of at least six feet between attendees from different households.

As the number of local cases and deaths continue to spike, hospitalization rates also remain at troubling levels and intensive care units are becoming limited in capacity, health officials said.

On Saturday, the county recorded 5,424 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 — 21% of whom are being treated in the ICU. That marks another 300 patients since just the day prior, officials said.

“Hospital capacity across the county is limited, and healthcare workers are hard-pressed to keep up with the need for care,” the county Department of Public Health said in a statement.