Church with history of outbreaks holds indoor Christmas services

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SAN DIEGO — Two days after a San Diego federal judge denied churches the ability to worship indoors, Awaken Church in Kearny Mesa and San Marcos held multiple Christmas events inside.

The church has been in the spotlight over the past few months for defying coronavirus restrictions. The county confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks at three campuses.

San Diego County public health officials have urged residents to avoid large holiday gatherings as they reported 2,598 new COVID-19 infections and a record 39 deaths from the virus Wednesday.

Despite the growing caseload and record hospitalizations, hundreds of people gathered inside Awaken Church’s Kearny Mesa and San Marcos locations for their “A Night of Christmas” services. FOX 5 video showed many people without masks.

“Christmas is such a time of tradition and coming together as family and friends, and we want to give people that opportunity,” campus pastor Jon Heinrichs said.

Heinrichs and his wife Becky said they moved forward with the event to give San Diegans a sense of hope and normalcy during the holidays.

“Normalcy, really, I think that’s the huge thing, because what a year. It hasn’t been normal at all and people have missed out on everything that can really bring them joy. For us, it’s so important that people can come to a place where they have a breath of fresh air,” Becky Heinrichs said.

Based on the current regional stay-at-home order, indoor services aren’t allowed. The events Wednesday defied coronavirus restrictions. The Heinrichs said that’s not how they look at it.

“We really feel like we’re not actually defying the law. We feel like we’re under the law and abiding by it, abiding by the law and also obeying Christ,” Jon Heinrichs said.

Public health officials announced outbreaks at three Awaken Church locations earlier this month. A total of 64 people tested positive for the virus.

“We’re not here to cause problems. We’re here to help the community the best we can and we’re providing all the different safety measures we can,” Jon Heinrichs said.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said they recognize the importance of faith and religion, which is why under the current order, there are no limitations on the number of people who can worship together outdoors. It’s a different story for indoor services, and that’s why a federal judge recently denied a church’s request to reverse the ban.

“Extreme danger is presented from indoor settings with large numbers of people, with high intensity and duration exposure, where people are singing,” Fletcher said.

He said other than checking on the violation and issuing a cease-and-desist order — which they’ve done in the past — there’s not a whole lot the county can do.

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