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Update July 15, 2020: The Poway City Council today unanimously approved this plan.

By Miriam Raftery

July 14, 2020 (Poway) –  Poway Mayor Steve Vaus has proposed a “Sharing Outdoor Spaces” plan to “allow local fitness biz & houses of worship to use areas in our parks until indoor restrictions lifted.” Vaus announced the plan on Twitter, which the Poway City Council will vote on tomorrow during an 11:15 a.m. meeting. View agenda.

The action comes after the state on Monday issued a order required all houses of worship, gyms, yoga, dance and other fitness organizations to cease all indoor activities until further notice in order to mitigate the further spread of COVID-19.

“Similar to how we recently assisted Poway restaurants by providing picnic tables, I propose we help houses of worship and fitness-oriented businesses (yoga, Pilates, dance class, gyms, etc.) by providing space for their activities in our parks,” the Mayor’s proposal states, noting that the state has not banned such activities from taking place outdoors. Outdoor activities are considered less risky by health officials since the virus dissipates more quickly in sunshine and since people are not breathing recirculated air.

He adds, “We have sufficient acreage in our parks to make space available, at no cost, to Poway-based houses of worship and fitness organizations while having minimal impact on other park users.”

Use of  parks would be limited to Poway based houses of worship and fitness organizations with a current Poway business certificate and commercial insurance. Those utilizing parks for these purposes must add the City as an "additional insured" on the organization's policy. The city would also require that all COVID-19 safety guidelines be adhered to, including rules regarding face coverings and social distancing.

While it’s unclear whether any significant number of outbreaks of COVID-19 have been linked to gyms and fitness activities, outbreaks have surged among members of churches that have reopened nationwide, the New York Times reported last week. Outbreaks have been reported even among some congregations that wore masks and practiced social distancing.

California had previously recommended, but not required, that churches  and other houses of worship refrain from singing during services, since singing has been shown to easily spread the virus through droplets and many outbreaks have been tied to choirs. However, some houses of worship ignored those guidelines and new outbreaks tied to worship services have been reported across California and in many other states. A new order issued July 1 bans singing during services.

However banning worship services poses First Amendment concerns. Also, religious services provide spiritual support at a time when many people need such hep as they are struggling to cope with isolation, job losses and other issues cuased by the pandemic and quarantine.

The Poway measure would require a temporary relaxation of restrictions on commercial uses. Staff would establish a no-fee application process and reservation guidelines with minimal paperwork.

Mayor Vaus previously won approval for the city to purchase picnic tables to loan to restaurants moving outdoors temporarily. After the restrictions on indoor dining is lifted, the picnic tables will be relocated to parks in Poway.

Vaus is currently a candidate running for the 2nd district seat on the County Board of Supervisors. It remains to be seen whether the county may enact similar park use allowances for worship services, fitness activities or other businesses impacted by the latest rollbacks on many indoor businesses due to COVD-19.

Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/.

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