City officials revoke permit for church program in park – and say go ahead anyway

David and Amanda Vital of Salem Awakening 2020 at Riverfront Park on Thursday, August 6. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When churches closed in March under pandemic orders from Gov. Kate Brown, David and Amanda Vital felt like the world was hurting and people needed some hope.

David Vital is a drug and alcohol evaluator in Salem and he said he saw firsthand how isolation imposed by Covid was affecting people’s mental health.

 “We feel that there was a reason for that because people don’t have these other outlets to work on their mental and spiritual health,” he said.

The couple, members of the East Salem Fellowship, approached the city in May about hosting worship services in Riverfront Park they called “Salem Awakening.” Now, 24 Christian churches from around the area participate.

The group got the required city permit, paid the fee, and commenced to evening services attended by up to 200 people.

But their by-the-book approach to using the city park got upended when the city reversed course, canceling the permit and sending back the money.

The city did so with what was a legal wink to get around the permit needs – the group could just use the park as guests and not worry about permits and requirements. The unusual arrangement shows the unexpected ways that the pandemic has impacted what would seem to be the most ordinary functions of local government.

Salem Awakening won its permit to host the park services and began hosting worship events on Father’s Day – two days after Marion County entered phase two of the governor’s reopening plan. That new order increased outdoor gatherings to 250 people from 25.

For a week and half in late June, Salem Awakening held services in the park nightly. Then, the city notified them their permit to use the park was being revoked, citing new state guidelines that required the city to provide contact tracers for every 50 people at the event.

David Vital said Salem Awakening offered to pay for such service, but city spokeswoman Kathy Ursprung told Salem Reporter that the city doesn’t have the staffing to be on duty for a nightly four-hour event scheduled to continue through Sept. 7.

The city refunded $12,100 to Salem Awakening for the permit fee, and told the group the city park was available nonetheless without a permit. The only difference is the group couldn’t reserve a specific location or plug in to the city’s power.

Ursprung said the city isn’t issuing any event permits this summer because of the pandemic limits, but people are still free to visit and use the parks.

When their permit was revoked, David Vital said they were a little shocked. They wanted to continue meeting outdoors where the risk of transmitting Covid is considered lower than inside.

Amanda Vital said rumors have spread online about the group not following Covid guidelines. She reiterated that their permit wasn’t revoked because they weren’t following Covid precautions like social distancing and hand sanitizing.

She said if others want to use the amphitheater she asks that they message the group beforehand and they’ll move to a different area of the park.

“The most disheartening thing was that we see the hurting people and here we come out to help those people,” she said. “We felt like we were doing more good than harm by being out here, meeting their emotional needs.”

The couple said they plan to continue meeting until September and have been encouraged by the collection of churches that have come together across denominations to meet nightly at the park.

For now, there will be a need met.

“There has been many, many, many people down here every single night who come down here and are crying, having emotional disturbances specifically related to Covid depression,” Amanda Vital said. 

Salem Awakening 2020 at Riverfront Park on Thursday, August 6. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Chloe Maddox, 17, and Anina Rone set up microphones prior to Salem Awakening 2020 at Riverfront Park on Thursday, August 6. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A table of bibles at Salem Awakening 2020 at Riverfront Park on Thursday, August 6. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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Have a story tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.