Christian music festival organizers who drew big crowd to Tempe could face citations, thousands in fines
Organizers of an unauthorized Christian music festival that drew thousands of mostly unmasked attendees to Tempe Town Lake earlier this month could face thousands in fines.
Tempe seeks to charge organizers with violating several city codes, the city’s mask mandate and state guidelines on large gatherings.
The city also seeks to recover costs related to police, fire and parks staff that responded to the event. A cost estimate is not yet available.
People from across the Valley and out-of-state gathered at Tempe Town Lake on Nov. 1 for the event, Let Us Worship, hosted by California-based Christian worship leader Sean Feucht.
Organizers didn’t obtain an event permit from Tempe and held the event even after city staffers told them they could not. They flouted the city’s mask mandate that requires people to wear masks in public when social distancing isn’t possible during the new coronavirus pandemic.
The event is one of dozens of large concerts that the organizers have held across the country in response to COVID-19 restrictions on religious services. Feucht has come under fire for bringing together thousands of people in the middle of a pandemic as cases surge across the country and for disregarding public health guidelines.
Officials in Nashville, where he hosted an event in early October without a permit, investigated the event but ultimately didn’t charge a local organizer who cooperated with the investigation after determining that Feucht had “duped” him, the Tennessean, which is part of the USA Today Network, reported.
Feucht’s Nov. 7 New Orleans event also is under investigation by city officials for violating COVID-19 restrictions, according to the Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate.
In Tempe, Mayor Corey Woods previously told The Arizona Republic that the event put the community at risk. The city said in a statement that it “strongly discourages unpermitted activities or actions that fail to comply with applicable laws, proclamations, executive orders and (health department) guidelines.”
Organizers to face several citations
Tempe first became aware of the event after being notified by another municipality that organizers planned to host a concert in Tempe, though it’s unclear how far in advance the city knew of the event.
The city said it attempted to contact the lead organizer, who is from out of state, multiple times but did not hear back. That appears to be common in other cities where Feucht has hosted similar events without necessary permits, according to multiple news reports.
Photos and videos from the event show a crowd of about 3,000 to 5,000 people, mostly unmasked, huddled together on the south bank of the lake.
Police, fire and parks personnel were dispatched to the area to monitor and help with cleanup after the event but they didn’t shut down the event or enforce the city’s COVID-19 restriction. The city said at the time it was seeking clarification on whether the event was exempt from state guidelines prohibiting large gatherings.
State guidelines prohibit gatherings of 50 or more people, although it gives municipalities the power to approve events if they meet certain safety precautions. The guidelines don’t stop people from attending constitutionally protected activities, including religious events, though previous guidelines from the governor and the state Health Department recommend physical distancing when possible.
Exempt or not, Tempe believes organizers needed a city permit to hold the event.
The city also believes organizers should have followed its mask mandate. People are required to wear masks at religious events under the city and county mask mandates.
Tempe plans to cite organizers with violating the city’s mask mandate, city code for not obtaining a city special events permit and two executive orders issued by the governor in the summer related to reopening guidelines. Violations are considered misdemeanors punishable by up to $2,500 or six months in jail.
The city is considering citing organizers for violating city codes related to driving a vehicle in a city park and using sound amplification equipment without a permit.
City code allows the city to seek reimbursement for emergency response, cleanup, security and other costs incurred by the city related to unauthorized events. Tempe seeks to recoup costs, as it has with other unpermitted events, “so that Tempe residents do not bear the costs,” the city said.
Tempe said it reported the event to the Arizona Department of Health Services, which investigates businesses that violate state reopening guidelines. The Health Department said it has not received a complaint.
City says events OK if organizers follow rules
Organizers seeking to hold an event in Tempe typically go through the city’s Special Events Office, which helps organizers navigate the permitting process. They must apply for a special event permit and pay a fee and provide proof of insurance, among other documents.
A special events committee comprised of city employees reviews the application and organizers are required to make a presentation to the committee before a permit is issued.
Woods told The Republic last week that the process ensures that events are properly vetted and held in a safe manner.
It’s even more critical to follow this process given the magnitude of the event and the current health crisis, he said.
A city statement said special events, even large ones, can take place with precautions. The Sixth Street Market in downtown Tempe has resumed on weekends and the city will host the Ironman Arizona triathlon, which draws thousands of competitors, later this month.
“But this is only possible for events whose organizers work with the city of Tempe diligently and within reasonable timelines to ensure safety,” the statement said. “There is a fundamental difference between unvetted, unpermitted events and safe, thoughtfully planned events that adhere to public health guidelines and all laws.”
The city said going forward it will stop any event that does not have proper permits.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.