Anyone concerned about the spread of COVID-19 would do well to avoid California’s San Luis Obispo County for the moment.
That’s because some of its highest legal authorities — including District Attorney Dan Dow — have decided not to enforce CDC-recommended measures to check the spread of the virus.
In fact, Dow declared San Luis Obispo a “sanctuary county” for those faithful who reject such earthly concepts as social distancing, mask-wearing, and other precautionary behaviors as an impediment to their communion with the divine.
Speaking at an Independence Day celebration hosted by an area winery, Dow complained of a statewide ban on singing in church services. (Research has shown that singing carries a particularly high transmission risk.) He followed his complaint with an announcement:
By the power vested in me as District Attorney of San Luis Obispo County, I declare San Luis Obispo County a sanctuary county for worship and praise in church. When we’re releasing the real criminals into our community but we’re trying to criminalize those that are dedicated to exercising their First Amendment rights, we’ve gone wrong, and I won’t allow that to happen in San Luis Obispo County while I’m the District Attorney.
The statement was met with cheers, applause, and cries of “Yeah!” and “Thank you, Dan!”
Dow’s reference to “releasing the real criminals” refers to the decision by Governor Gavin Newsom (of the San Luis Obispo Newsoms) to release certain non-violent prisoners from incarceration in a bid to slow the spread of disease in state penitentiaries.
Does Dow have the right to make this unilateral declaration? Well, he can’t change the state law. But, as he pointed out in an interview posted on his website, he has the authority to decide who is charged and punished for which crimes. If he chooses not to pursue worship-related cases, there might as well be no law restricting them at all.
Speaking to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Dow defended his words:
I am firmly committed to the principle that it would be a severe injustice for my office to charge a person with a crime who has simply chosen to practice their faith by singing in church. Today in 2020, more than ever, we need more people attending their houses of worship and seeking help from the Almighty for an answer to the coronavirus.
The whole case serves to highlight the extent to which right-leaning officials like Dow see the coronavirus response in strict moral terms — “right and wrong,” he emphasized in his speech — without giving much thought to the medical and scientific implications. Freedom, in this understanding of the world, isn’t really a right; it’s a moral reward. Criminals are bad, so they shouldn’t have freedoms, even in the name of creating a safer community overall. Churchgoers are good, so they should be able to do as they like, consequences be damned. Criminals should be punished, churchgoers should be protected.
That’s not how viruses work, Mr. Dow.
His July 4 announcement is, to some extent, a continuation of a policy he’s held from the beginning of the crisis, as evidenced by an open letter he wrote in May, addressing the region’s churches. There, he wielded his authority even more bluntly:
Until there is further clarification from higher courts, this office will not seek criminal enforcement for alleged violations involving those who meet in-person for religious purposes during Phase 2 of the reopening plan so long as social distancing and other health guidelines are followed.
… except the one about singing, I guess.
Dow isn’t the only local authority encouraging the people of San Luis Obispo to take COVID precautions lightly. County Sheriff Ian Parkinson spoke just days later at a North County Tea Party meeting, where he dismissed mask-wearing as an issue of “personal responsibility” and individual choice:
If you choose to wear one, great for you. If you choose not to wear one, great for you.
Not so great for the people around you, of course, especially if you happen to be an unwitting carrier of the virus. When media questioned his statement, Parkinson allowed that he should’ve been more clear that he believes people ought to wear masks if they are able. But video of the talk showed him standing at the podium mask-free, so that assertion should be taken with several grains of salt.
Local opinion columnist The Shredder describes these men’s statements as “a terminal case of ‘tell the people what they want to hear.’” It’s all empty rhetoric, they claim, but it’s dangerous nonetheless because it encourages people to make uninformed choices with potentially fatal consequences, all in the name of political scoring. Says Shredder (italics in original):
Newsom’s order isn’t forbidding people from practicing Christianity, only temporarily from singing for their own safety! Dow’s pompous statement about refusal to prosecute is an empty political stunt. Get serious! Who’s going to police houses of worship? It’s going to be complaint driven, just like other infractions of state orders, and step one will be educating those ignoring the orders. The real problem is that Dow’s statement is downright dangerous.
By standing up and declaring SLO County a “sanctuary county for worship and praise,” he’s encouraging people of faith to ignore the state order and put their health at risk. Are you trying to kill off SLO County’s Christians, Dan? You monster!
Thankfully, not everyone in positions of power in San Luis Obispo County sides with Dow and Parkinson. County supervisor Bruce Gibson expressed fundamental agreement with what Shredder had to say, adding that there appears to be a lack of religious objectivity at play:
This appears to be another of our elected law enforcement officials playing to his far-right base — except what’s quite concerning is that it appears the DA is imposing his religious beliefs to decide which California laws he will choose to enforce. That calls into serious question whether he has the impartial judgment necessary for his position.
It’s a fair question. Selectively prosecuting to give churches a more lax set of legal constraints, dampening efforts to restrict the spread of a nasty and potentially lethal illness, relying on magical thinking to protect the faithful — it sure sounds like impaired judgment to me.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Thanks to Brian for the link)