You Might Go to Prison for Singing in a Livestream Church Service in This California County

Pixabay via Delphin Media.

Banning music sounds like something out of a dystopian nightmare, but in a northern California county, singing or playing wind instruments — even a harmonica — during a livestream video event can get citizens fined or thrown in prison. This limitation expressly applies to a worship team’s efforts to praise God in a church sanctuary, even if they are spaced out 6 feet apart and even though the order only allows four people in a sanctuary at once.

Mendocino County issued its current health order on April 10. Near the top, the order includes a warning: “Please read this Order carefully. Violation of or failure to comply with this Order is a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.” The order includes the various expected social distancing guidelines: which businesses are essential and can remain open, demands that people walk six feet apart and wash their hands, limitations on travel, and so on. Many of these onerous restrictions make sense given the threat of the coronavirus, but some reek of tyrannical overreach.

Mendocino County’s restrictions on live-streamed events seem downright Orwellian.

Many cities, counties, and states have allowed churches to share services via livestream video but capped the number of staff allowed in a sanctuary at 10 and stipulated that they must be at least 6 feet apart to stop the spread of the virus. Occasionally the 10-person cap seems absurd, but these restrictions are far more reasonable than Mendocino County’s order.

In Mendocino County, “only four individuals may be present for the live event.” FOUR.

Yet the restriction on livestream events gets worse. The county dared to ban specific forms of expression.

“No singing or use of wind instruments, harmonicas, or other instruments that could spread COVID-19 through projected droplets shall be permitted unless the recording of the event is done at one’s residence, and involving only the members of one’s household or living unit, because of the increased risk of transmission of COVID-19,” the order states.

No singing. None. No wind instruments. None. If Mendocino County churches wanted a triumphal trumpet solo as part of Easter Sunday worship to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, that would be expressly banned, unless the trumpeter was in his own house away from the sanctuary. If they wanted a four-person choir to sing “Christ the Lord is risen today,” members of that choir would have to join a livestream service virtually from their homes. This is possible, of course, but it is extremely difficult to pull off.

Some cities have issued orders that expressly single out churches for special coronavirus restrictions, but Mendocino County did avoid that particular pitfall. The singing ban applies to “venues, such as concert halls, auditoriums, churches, temples, and playhouses” which are allowed to share “a recorded and/or live-streamed event” virtually.

This ridiculous order would ban one solitary soloist from singing “Mary had a little lamb,” but it would allow an expectorating preacher to spew the same supposedly coronavirus-laden “droplets” in the midst of a sermon in the same sanctuary. It would prevent a clarinet player from filling an auditorium with a melody while permitting a poet to loudly declaim in the same space. It would prevent a child from playing her harmonica while allowing a spit-laced oration.

If preventing the spread of the virus were the true concern of such an order, why not increase the distance during a musical performance, rather than banning it outright? Why not simply stipulate that singers and trumpeters and clarinetists must face the empty audience as they perform?

No, Mendocino County, in its infinite wisdom, decided that singing during the coronavirus crisis shall be verboten, and any happy melodies from wind instruments must also be barred from any semi-public space — where only four people are allowed, to begin with!

The coronavirus has brought many petty tyrants out of the shadows, and it appears Mendocino County is home to some of the most abominable tyrants in America.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.