Peoples Church in northeast Salem tied to one of Oregon’s largest Covid outbreaks

Pastor Scott Erickson stands in front of a tent used for Sunday services at Peoples Church on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A Salem church is the site of one of Oregon’s largest newly reported Covid outbreaks, which has sickened 74 people, including the lead pastor and his wife.

The outbreak at Peoples Church, 4500 Lancaster Dr. N.E., was listed as an outbreak location in the Oregon Health Authority’s weekly report on May 5, nearly one month after the authority began investigating Covid cases tied to the church.

The church’s Lead Pastor Scott Erickson was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by 10 Oregon churches last year seeking to overturn Gov. Kate Brown’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” order. At the time, that order capped gatherings statewide at 25 people, including religious services.

Peoples Church holds four in-person services on Sundays with options to watch online, according to its website. Videos and photos from April services on the church’s Facebook page show pastors, musicians and attendees generally not wearing masks. At Easter services on April 4, video shows several choirs performing onstage with dozens of people standing on risers singing, none masked.

Oregon’s current Covid health guidelines allow indoor church services, but require attendees wear masks or face coverings, maintain six feet of distance between people from different households and clean frequently-touched surfaces regularly.

Capacity is also limited based on a county’s risk level. Counties labeled “high risk” for Covid spread, including Marion, limit faith gatherings to 25% occupancy or 150 people, whichever is smaller.

During an April 18 service, Executive Pastor Tom Murray said Erickson and his wife, Bonnie, were hospitalized and “receiving care after a Covid diagnosis.” That Sunday was Erickson’s birthday.

“Even within our church family, many of you have asked us to pray with you and pray for you as you’ve told us about illness in your homes,” Murray said.

Murray also addressed recent illnesses in the congregation in an April 14 video, though he did not specifically mention Covid.

“People’s Church is open as a place of Christ-centered hope, health and forgiveness. If you or someone in your household is sick with a contagious illness, please seek the medical attention you need. Stay home. Watch online and return when you are feeling better,” Murray said.

He said the church is sanitized regularly.

“We encourage those who choose to attend in person to take advantage of physical distancing in the space we have on our main level and our balcony,” he told congregants.

In response to questions from Salem Reporter about the church’s health guidelines, Erickson’s health and the timing of the outbreak, Brent Kintz, who runs the church’s family life and communications, responded with a statement.

“We are concerned about the COVID-19 surge in Oregon. This statewide increase has impacted our entire region, including our church family. Pastor Erickson is looking forward to sharing a Mother’s Day message in our online and in-person worship services this Sunday.”

Kintz said mask guidelines are posted in the church.

In an interview last May with Salem Reporter, Erickson said Peoples Church had been following state orders and holding drive-in and online services, but that they didn’t offer the same experience of worship.

“When you are in God’s presence and able to worship, there is something special about that atmosphere,” he told Salem Reporter. “And when you can’t be together in that kind of moment you miss the opportunity to feel God’s presence.”

Erickson said if Brown’s order was overturned, the church would limit its sanctuary to half capacity, 550 people, to maintain social distancing. He said Peoples Church had 3,700 members who attend regularly. 

Explaining why he joined the lawsuit, Erickson said he respected the governor but disagreed with her order.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled against the churches in June. Brown subsequently loosened guidelines to allow larger gatherings and religious services.

The church is part of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination.

The Oregon Health Authority began investigating the outbreak April 6, according to the May 5 report. The agency publicly discloses Covid outbreaks tied to workplaces with at least 30 employees and five or more Covid cases in a weekly report. The number of cases includes secondary infections, such relatives who caught Covid from family members working at the outbreak site.

In response to questions from Salem Reporter on April 22 about a number of reported Covid cases tied to the church, the health authority said it lists Covid outbreaks with at least 20 related cases in daily press releases and could not comment on unpublished information. It had previously not listed the Peoples Church outbreak.

“We must verify information and assess numbers of employees and volunteers before reporting outbreaks publicly to ensure they meet our threshold for reporting. We had not confirmed total worker counts until this week. Under surge conditions, local public health resources are focused on other high-consequence settings, so information about outbreaks can take more time to collect,” said Rudy Owens, a spokesman for the health authority, in an email.

Seven other Oregon workplaces, including two in Marion County, have larger active Covid outbreaks, according to the health authority report, but none are newly reported. Salem Hospital has recorded 193 Covid cases since an outbreak there began in May 2020, and an Amazon facility near Aumsville has recorded 150 Covid cases since last May. 

Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not received any complaints about the church violating Covid rules, spokesman Aaron Corvin said.

This article was updated to include information from Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.