Oakland hall owner: Pandemic ‘never seemed like a real thing,’ venue will defy city order to close

OAKLAND — The owner of an Oakland humanist hall said Thursday that he will not obey a city order to shut down during the latest COVID-19 surge, saying that “the pandemic never seemed like a real thing” and bemoaning the money he has lost thus far.

On Thursday, the Oakland city attorney’s office obtained a temporary restraining order forcing David Oertel and the Fellowship for Humanity nonprofit, which operate the Humanist Hall venue on 27th Street. The order, granted by Superior Court Judge Paul D. Herbert, says the hall must comply with COVID-19-related public health orders around social gatherings and requirements for mask-wearing, social distancing and hygienic guidelines, or else present a case against doing so before a state Superior Court judge at a Dec. 15 hearing.

In a statement, the city attorney’s office said that the defendants had “operated a business — variously denominated a church, an event hall, or a party space — in repeated, flagrant, and knowing violation of local and state public health orders.

“They have hosted parties and events for untold numbers of people, allowed partygoers and event-goers to pack into their indoor space without masks or social distancing, and plan to continue such activities into the foreseeable future.”

City staff issued courtesy letters, warnings and a notice of violation before the fines, according to the statement, but received assertions that they had no right to stop events and calling the public health crisis a hoax.

Reached for comment Thursday, Oertel said he had not seen the restraining order, and had no plans to comply with it: “I haven’t gotten any kind of paper.”

Oertel pointed to what he called the hall’s economic needs. “It’s true, we’re broke. We were impoverished in the spring. We have to eat and pay bills. We were shut down for so long, and the people who were working were desperate to do events” like baby showers and repasts, he said.

“Each day I don’t operate, I miss out on 600 bucks, 800 bucks. We can’t just sit here and watch Netflix. It’s sort of like death by not operating or death by fine. There’s no exit for us.”

But Oertel also said he doesn’t believe in COVID-19 or government measures intended to limit its spread. “The pandemic never seemed like a real thing to us. We didn’t know people who were sick or dying,” he said. “Basically, it looked like some kind of fraud. Why should we have to shut down in the face of a fake event?”

Data compiled by this news organization showed some 1,000 new cases of coronavirus recorded around the Bay Area on Wednesday, with a 37 percent increase in hospitalizations over the last week. On Thursday, officials announced a nighttime curfew meant to keep people from gathering in ways that could further spread the disease.

In an interview with the Bay Area News Group on Thursday, Oertel offered unsupported beliefs about COVID-19 and “globalists.”

He denied any enforcement of health-order requirements at hall events, saying that “we left it up to the people, where some did and some thought it was nonsense and they didn’t. We didn’t try to impose anything on them with regard to masks or social distancing.”

Oertel said he’d received calls threatening his safety from people “who are upset, they feel like we’re endangering the health of the community,” as well as “a tremendous amount of supportive phone calls nearly every day.”

In a statement, Oakland City Attorney Barbara J. Parker said that “rarely has the hard work of so many to protect public health been threatened by the actions of so few.”

“The impacts of COVID-19 have fallen disproportionately on Black, Latinx, Asian and other people of color, people with disabilities, and other communities that have historically been marginalized and victimized by discrimination,” the statement continued. “When people and organizations like the [d]efendants in this case refuse to comply with public health orders, they are further endangering communities that are already suffering disproportionate harm.”

It was not immediately clear how the order might be enforced if the hall continued to hold events. Asked for comment, an Oakland Police spokesperson referred a reporter back to the city attorney’s statement. A spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a call for comment.

Officials in Santa Clara County have been waging a similar battle with the Calvary Chapel, which has been fighting to hold services through much of the year. The church has accrued some $350,000 in fines for holding services in defiance of county restrictions on indoor gatherings.

Contact George Kelly at 408-859-5180.

Source: mercurynews
Oakland hall owner: Pandemic ‘never seemed like a real thing,’ venue will defy city order to close