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As Diagnoses Climb, Who’s In Charge Of Enforcing Oregon's COVID-19 Restrictions?

Hundreds gathered in downtown Portland recently for a rally held by Christian musician Sean Feucht. Few wore masks.

If you happened to take a stroll through Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park on Saturday, August 8, you would have come across a scene from a bygone era: A crowd of hundreds enraptured by a concert, the vast majority of faces fully exposed.

If contemporary Christian worship music is your genre, you might have recognized the man on stage as the popular evangelical songwriter Sean Feucht. Or if you caught the photo snapped of President Donald Trump meeting faith leaders in December, you might recognize Feucht as the beaming man with long blonde hair reachingout to touch the president’s left arm.

Since late July, Feucht has been holding large — and largely maskless — rallies up and down the West Coast. Outraged after Californiatemporarily banned singingin churches to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Feucht launched a series of concert-like worship services “to take the church outside.” After hosting a gathering of hundreds in his home city of Reddingthat was quickly condemned by local health officials, Feucht moved on to Fresno, Pasadena, Bakersfield and San Diego.

On Aug. 8, he arrived in Portland, where, once again, he held the kind of event primed to make a public health expert shudder: hundreds of people, many likely from out of town, swaying and singing together, few covering their faces. A video montage he produced from his stay shows a handful of attendees later receiving baptisms in the Willamette River.

Feucht quickly moved on from the Rose City, departing Sunday to Seattle for another night of rocking out to a mostly maskless crowd. But in his wake, the musician has left lingering questions over what body in Oregon, if any, is supposed to step in and prevent a gathering that seems all but certain to increase the risk of a deadly coronavirus outbreak.

The violation of the governor’s ban on big outdoor gatherings is nothing new in Portland. Massive demonstrations against police violence have rocked the city each night for more than two months.

But it was the first mass event in Portland that flew in the face of the governor’s July order that people wear masks if they’re outside but not social distancing. During the nightly demonstrations against racism, most protesters cover their faces. Most at Saturday’s concert did not.

The governor’s order comes with penalties: a maximum of 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine. But Gov. Kate Brown has been reluctant to ask local police to enforce the rules on individuals. Instead, the state has emphasized an “education-first” approach, trying to teach people about the public health benefits of masks rather than punishing them for disobeying.

This approach allows the state to avoid a politically fraught situation where police are tasked with deciding which maskless Oregonians to detain and cite. But it also means when there’s an event where organizers appear to be fully educated on the rules and intent at thumbing their nose at them, there’s not much local agencies seem prepared to do to prevent it — or to discourage another group from doing the same.

The relevant agencies all had a heads up about Feucht’s gathering: Portland’s parks bureau, the police bureau, the mayor’s office, the Multnomah County Health Department and the Oregon Health Authority.

Portland Parks & Recreation said it would have refused to hand over a permit, but it never came to that since Feucht never asked. Bureau spokesperson Mark Ross said the department had intended to install new rule signs in Tom McCall Waterfront Park ahead of time, letting park-goers know to keep their distance and cover their face. But the fresh signs weren’t available that week.

Portland police said they take an “education approach” and are not aware of having enforced the governor’s order at any demonstration during the pandemic. Instead, they assigned demonstration liaison officers to Feucht’s event — a standard practice for police to keep their finger on the pulse of a protest, but complicated when the gathering is not supposed to occur. Feucht appears to have taken the call he received from the local police as a ringing endorsement.

“I got a call from someone in the police department. They said they’re all excited, they’re looking forward to protecting us,” Feucht said in a video posted on his Facebook page Friday after arriving in Portland. “We’re so grateful to have the police behind us.”

Police officials said they did not endorse the event, and encouraged people to follow the governor’s order.

The office of Mayor Ted Wheeler, who oversees both the parks bureau and the police, said those departments are following the guidance of the state, which is not typically asking local law enforcement to address violations. In a statement, Wheeler’s team said it was state and local health authorities who “can issue civil penalties and take other enforcement actions” when people don’t cover their face.

The Oregon Health Authority said its faith liaison, Maria Waters, found out about Feucht’s gathering on social media a week before and sent along the info to Multnomah County. Emails show on the morning of Aug. 4, Waters sent a link to the event’s Facebook page to the county and said she was concerned based on videos she had seen coming out of Redding, which she called “an identical event.”

“This will draw a statewide (or further) reach,” she warned in a follow up email, including a link to an article headlined “Outdoor worship service in Redding defies California mask order, alarming health officials.”

“I live in Central Oregon, and I know a number of folks who plan to attend.”

Jonathan Modie, a spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority, said while the state sometimes sends warning letters when it hears of an event that may violate the order, it is local agencies that “have the boots on ground” and enforcement capabilities. He said the state health authority was told the county was taking the lead.

“OHA does not have an enforcement agency where we send out staff to these events and write tickets,” he said. “It’s not our role.”

Multnomah County spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said the county doesn’t have the human or legal power to preemptively stop large gatherings from taking place — or to levy a penalty after the fact. She said the county’s following the state’s lead with its “education first” model, and it was only after the concert that the county realized attendees likely had the public health information, but didn’t want to follow it.

She said the county reached out to the mayor’s office, parks department officials and the police force to inform them of the gathering, as it fell in their jurisdiction.

While the county looked to the city, which looked to the state, which looked back to the county, Feucht came and left unheeded and unfined.

Feucht’s team did not respond to questions over whether the musician encourages his fans to wear masks at events. Feucht has argued in interviews with other media outlets that there’s hypocrisy in placing stringent restrictions on religious events, which have been a leading source of COVID-outbreaks, while many public health experts say the protests against racism, which many consider a public health crisis in its own right, should continue.

In a statement, members of his team contrasted their event to the nightly protests, saying they didn’t set up barricades or light fires, but “gathered in peace with churches from all over the city to sing songs of praise.”

Feucht did not seem particularly concerned with the virus he risked spreading in Portland alongside his praise.

After the three-hour concert wrapped up, a KGW reporter at the gathering approached Feucht and asked him about the violation of state rules. The singer laughed, requested a selfie with fans next to him, and walked back into the crowd.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rebecca Ellis is a reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before joining OPB, she was a Kroc Fellow at NPR, filing stories for the National Desk in Washington D.C. and reporting from Salt Lake City.