Feds to Let 15,000 Worship on National Mall—Masks Be Damned
“This is insane. This is truly selfish behavior from people who claim to be devoted to the word of God,” one D.C. resident said.
For weeks, Sean Feucht has presided over thousands of maskless worshippers experiencing the “joy of salvation” even as America grapples with the terror of the coronavirus pandemic. From California to Nashville, the evangelical leader has defied public health experts and local officials with his “Let Us Worship” tour—leaving behind fear of superspreader contagion in already hard-hit areas.
Now Feucht’s grand finale is set for this weekend at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. And federal officials appear to be doing absolutely nothing to stop Feucht and his (expected) 15,000 guests, with the National Park Service approving an application to hold a “demonstration or special event” without mention of any guidelines to mitigate COVID-19 exposure.
“It’s disgraceful,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who advises the World Health Organization, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “It violates D.C.’s COVID-19 plan and it’s almost certainly going to lead to a superspreader event—and cause many new cases, hospitalization, and even death. It violates virtually every principle to mitigate this pandemic.”
That the rally was slated to be held some 1,200 yards from the White House, which played host to a likely superspreader event at the Rose Garden last month, pointed to a federal government seemingly content to let the pandemic run wild, experts said.
But it’s D.C. residents and leaders, who have long lacked meaningful federal representation, who are caught in the most immediate epidemiological crosshairs. Because the prayer event is at the National Mall, it is regulated by the National Park Service, and not city officials.
“This is insane,” D.C. resident Allison Lane told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “This is truly selfish behavior from people who claim to be devoted to the word of God. I don’t get it. The National Park Service is being willfully ignorant.”
To date, 624 people have died and 16,445 more have tested positive for the coronavirus in Washington, D.C., according to the city’s health database. But the nation’s capital has a promising 2 percent positive rate in Phase 2 of the city’s reopening plan, which prohibits gatherings of over 50 people and encourages residents to work from home. Certain activities, like attending places of worship, are permitted to go past that, but only if approved via local waiver.
Lane, a 34-year-old who is president of the advocacy group Bartenders Against Racism, added that while she tries to be objective when speaking to reporters, she thinks the weekend event is nothing short of “fucking stupid.”
“It’s not even for a good cause. It’s absolutely ridiculous. The National Park Service should do better. D.C. government should do better. This is an attention-grab for Sean Feucht,” she added.
A copy of the event permit, issued late Tuesday and obtained by The Daily Beast early Wednesday, lists a brief “COVID-19 Mitigation Plan,” which outlines the following measures: “We will have a sign placed at the table where we will give away bibles. All crew will have temperatures taken, masks and gloves provided. Backstage Hi-Touch Areas will be sanitized frequently. Sanitation stations provided by restrooms for audience.” A National Park Service spokesman previously told The Daily Beast that “as with all permit applications, we are discussing the COVID-19 mitigation plan with the event organizers, but that plan is not a requirement or condition of the permit.”
“While the National Park Service strongly encourages social distancing, the use of masks, and other measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, we will not require nor enforce their use,” the spokesperson added. The final permit does note that the service “reserves the right to immediately revoke this permit at any time should it responsibly appear that the public gathering presents a clear and present danger to public safety, good order or health, or if any conditions of this permit are violated.”
The final permit showed that nearly 7,000 people had officially registered for the event so far.
Feucht did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast this week. The local health department referred a request for comment to the mayor’s office, which did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
The permit application lists the Oct. 25 event as a demonstration hosted by the organization “Hold the Line.” Feucht’s personal website, which is also listed on the document, describes the organization as “a political activist movement seeking to rally the global church to engage in their civic duty—to vote and stand up for causes of righteousness and justice in the governmental arena.”
A tent for baptisms will feature 20 pastors to “help manage the area and the flow of the crowd that could gather, along with baptising people [sic],” according to the permit. Water will also be provided, along with prepackaged communion cups. Food trucks will line a nearby street, the permit notes.
Not immediately clear was whether Feucht submitted the permit application himself, or the level of his involvement other than social media promotion. The application lists Mary Auxier, who coordinated an event for Feucht earlier this month in Dallas, under “Person In Charge” and Whitney Whitt as “Coordinator.” Neither Auxier nor Whitt immediately responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
But rather than a brief fringe appearance in a bustling city, the permit application painted a picture of a weekend-long epidemiological shitshow.
The application covers the time frame of 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, and would allow the event to include speakers, portable restrooms, three generators, a stage, and a press riser—all for “religious freedom, prayer, and worship.” The initial permit application stated that donations would be solicited and some 15,000 people were expected to attend. But the final permit stipulated that “no fee may be collected, donation solicited, or commercial activity conducted” during the event.
The event comes less than a month after Feucht was featured at another event at the Lincoln Memorial—where Vice President Mike Pence surprised the religious leader by making an appearance. At the Washington Prayer March event, which reportedly amassed some 75,000 people, Pence was seen joining in prayer with the mostly maskless crowd.
Experts said that a federal agency countenancing an event like this even as the pandemic surges nationwide reflected a larger problem inside the highest levels of government: Officials believe America is over the virus.
In a campaign call on Monday, President Donald Trump insisted that people are “tired” of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed almost 220,000 Americans. Over the last month—and since his own COVID-19 diagnosis—Trump has been touring America and claiming the nation is “rounding the corner” on COVID-19, even though infections are now surging with daily averages of more than 50,000 a day. Experts believe the spread of the virus will only get worse as winter looms.
Trump recently went further, claiming Americans are “tired” of curtailing the virus—and even tried to slam his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, for “listening to scientists.”
This rhetoric, according to Gostin, is extremely alarming, and hints that the federal government has “simply given up on the COVID response.”
“They’ve moved on—but the virus hasn’t moved on, and D.C. is going to pay this price this weekend,” the Georgetown professor said, adding that Feucht’s event sends “a horrible message” to other cities across the United States that “life is getting back to normal.”
“To be clear, it’s not getting back to normal anytime soon,” he continued. “It’s going to get worse if we don’t follow basic guidelines.”
Basic guidelines do not appear to have been followed at any of Feucht’s recent appearances.
Last weekend, the Christian musician appeared at at least two events—one in Kansas City, which hit a new record high of cases in the past few days, and again in Pittsburgh. A similar Feucht-affiliated event in Redding, California, on July 22 inspired fear from city leaders there, as did one in Oakland, Maine, late last month, where Town Manager Gary Bowman told The Daily Beast he worried the indoor gathering would turn into a “superspreader” event. Other Feucht events have hit cities across the country, including Seattle, Oregon, Colorado, Charleston, Nashville, and Florida.
A video posted on Feucht’s YouTube channel of the Nashville event showed adults, teens, and even toddlers singing, laughing, and crying in worship together at a courthouse. There were colorful T-shirts, baptisms, clasped hands, and raucous chants of God’s love, while Feucht preached about the power of prayer over depression and hardship.
Notably missing: masks and attempts at social distancing.
Grace Bouwer, a Charleston resident who once lived in the nation’s capital, told The Daily Beast it was “incredibly frustrating to see” Feucht’s mass services go on like this. As a practicing Christian, Bouwer stressed there needs to be “balance” between putting trust in God to get through the ongoing pandemic and following health guidelines to ensure the safety of others.
“I don’t think Sean Feucht is striking the right balance there. If he really believes he’s been called to hold these rallies, then great, there’s a nifty platform for that called Zoom,” the 28-year-old told The Daily Beast. “Sean is the type of right-wing conservative Christian that takes a message like ‘Black Lives Matter,’ something that Christians [and everyone] should feel unequivocally comfortable saying, and uses it to scare and rally his base, and ultimately what you see are Christians being pulled away from God’s call for justice.”
The precise epidemiological impact of previous “Let Us Worship” events were still coming into focus. Brian Todd, a spokesman for the Metro Public Health Department for the City of Nashville, told The Daily Beast that while the city has not definitively linked any confirmed cases to the religious event, several participants lived out of state, “so it is possible there could be cases associated with the event that their place of residence would investigate.” Health officials in other host cities did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Dr. William Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School professor known for his work on HIV and president of the global health think tank ACCESS Health International, believes it’s only a matter of time before we see these events confirmed as superspreaders.
“They’re reckless,” Haseltine said, adding that Feucht was “putting people in danger.”
“Unfortunately, even our leaders are not following public health recommendations, so it’s not impossible to see how this permit was granted,” he said. "But let’s be clear, there is no way to host an event like this without putting people in danger.”