3 arrested at Idaho church singing event to flout mask order

MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — Three people have been arrested after an Idaho church held a maskless psalm singing event in a city hall parking lot in violation of the town's mask order.

Christ Church pastor and event organizer Ben Zornes said that Wednesday's event in the northern Idaho town of Moscow was intended at criticizing what he called"largely groundless" laws like the mask order. It was issued by the Moscow City Council in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

“We wanted to make a statement we’re ready to head back to normal,” Zornes told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

Five people were issued citations for violating the city’s mask and social distancing order, and two of them were also arrested on suspicion of resisting or obstructing an officer, said Moscow Police Chief James Fry.

Among those arrested was Latah County Commission candidate Gabriel Rench. He was not charged after police said he refused to identify himself to law enforcement officers.

Most of those who attended the singing event didn’t wear masks or social distance, ignoring colorful circles that city workers had painted in the parking lot to indicate where people could stand to maintain social distance.

Christ Church Pastor Doug Wilson warned attendees at the start of the event that they could be cited by police for not wearing a mask or social distancing. About 150 people attended and most left after about 30 minutes.

Zornes said the church hosts hymn events about once a month at public parks or local homes.

Fry said it was the first time Moscow police had issued citations for mask order violations. The order took effect in early July, requiring face coverings to be worn in situations where social distancing can't be maintained with non-household members.

The Moscow City Council on Monday extended the order to last through Jan. 5. Violators are subject to a misdemeanor charge with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Fry said the department has been “very lenient” on enforcing the order and that officers have tried to work with groups to prevent situations like the church's mask protest.

“But at some point in time you have to enforce,” Fry said.

Zornes said police officers calmly made it clear they were going to enforce the face mask order with arrests, but said the arrests were not justified.

“We were just singing songs,” Zornes said.