South Bay church holds indoor services as COVID-19 fines reach $100K, criminal charge possible

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (KGO) -- Fines are mounting against a Santa Clara County church that is holding in-person, indoor services, against repeated warnings from public health officials.

Neighbors of the church are concerned about the spread of the novel coronavirus. They don't want to be identified, but they asked the I-Team's Dan Noyes to investigate.

The county has contacted 1,100 businesses about guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and North Valley Baptist Church is one of the few that won't comply.

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Crowds have streamed into Santa Clara's North Valley Baptist over the past several weeks; the church can hold 3,000 people. I went there on a recent Sunday to ask why they are breaking state and county guidelines that help prevent the spread of the virus, and what steps they might be taking to protect the congregation.

At first, they said the I-Team could attend the service if we didn't bring in a camera. Then, they changed their mind saying it's private property.

The I-Team also asked more than a dozen congregation members to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, how they see the risk of attending church; they all declined.

Pastor Jack Trieber told the congregation Sunday night, "What a wonderful day in God's house with a great crowd."

Trieber said the service marked six months since the church was shut down over the pandemic. Since resuming services, he's been hit with $102,500 in fines.

He appealed to county officials, "One, I'm asking you to stop all fines. And two, I'm asking you to remove all fines. This is not Caesar's money. This is God's money."

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Religious leaders from across California gathered in Oakland to plead with Governor Newsom to allow them to reopen their churches as part of his "Phase 2" reopening plan, threatening to reopen their churches on May 31 if their plea is not met.



The I-Team spoke with Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams on Monday afternoon.

Dan Noyes: "Why is it important they don't hold those in-person services?"

James Williams: "Well, from everything we've learned about COVID-19, and we've learned a lot in the last several months, one of the key principles that we have learned so far is that outdoors is safer than indoors."

Across the country, hundreds of COVID-19 cases have been linked to religious services; one congregation had a third of its members infected and three deaths tied to the virus.

The I-Team was there when county workers plastered the doors of North Valley Baptist with yet another cease and desist letter.

Dan Noyes: "Is there actually the possibility of a criminal charge?"

James Williams: "Violation of the health orders is a crime, so that's absolutely something that's available."

RELATED: California pastor continues to defy stay-at-home order by holding church services, citing First Amendment

At last night's service, Pastor Trieber urged the congregation to take some precautions, saying, "You get a temperature or you get one of these symptoms, please don't come to church. Please don't come to church, please stay home and make sure that you're not infectious."

But, his wife sent an email to the members with "permission from pastor" saying, "You can survive COVID! It is not a death sentence. ... should you get COVID, the less you talk about it, the better off EVERYONE will be! Doctors will ask you questions, shake their heads and then turn in their 'report' to the county."

Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor told the I-Team, "That's unfortunate because part of us getting through this and having a more healthy community is the tracing and the testing. We're doing that constantly."

One final note. On Sunday night, Pastor Trieber discussed the heat wave we're having, saying, "I'll narrow it down tonight, get you home to those houses that have no air conditioning."

He tried to raise money for his college on the grounds of the church.

"If you want to stay, every pew is $1,000," Trieber said. "Make the checkout to Golden State Baptist College, you can stay the night for $1,000 and that'd be wonderful."

A second San Jose Church, Calvary Chapel, is also defying heath orders and receiving fines. This story is already causing a lot of debate. You can weigh in on Dan Noyes' Facebook or Twitter pages.


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Take a look at more stories by Dan Noyes and the ABC7 News I-Team.

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