The Tri-County Health Department says it has repeatedly attempted to contact The Rock church in Castle Rock after receiving two complaints that the church hosted large gatherings, including a meeting of the conservative political group FEC United.
A Jan. 28 gathering drew scrutiny after FEC United founder Joe Oltmann posted video footage to social media showing hundreds of people crowded closely together in the church sanctuary without masks.
At the time, Douglas County was under Level Orange restrictions on the state's COVID-19 dial, which limited indoor seated events to 25% capacity or 50 people.
The event was one of FEC United's membership meetings, according to the organization's website. FEC United did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Brian Hlavacek, environmental health director for Tri-County Health Department, said staff first contacted The Rock on Feb. 3 and have followed up multiple times by phone and email. Health agency staff had not received a response as of Feb. 16, he said, and would continue trying to reach The Rock.
Tri-County Health operates on a complaint-based system, a spokesman said, and investigates potential violations of pandemic guidelines if it receives a complaint.
If staff can speak with the church, the agency's protocols are to first provide educational information about COVID-19 safety measures and ensure the facility has current information about pandemic guidelines, Hlavacek said.
“We would have articulated, here's the complaint we received, and the concern. We just want to make sure you have the most up-to-date guidance,” he said on Feb. 12.
The health agency's education-first approach has been successful at gaining compliance, he said.
“If we still see noncompliance down the road, if we're getting complaints, usually it involves a potential warning, potentially ending up in some sort of cease-and-desist letter,” he said. “We are not certainly there yet. We are hoping to make contact.”
Hlavacek said Tri-County also received a complaint on Feb. 12 alleging The Rock held another large gathering without social distancing or masks, although further details of that incident were not immediately available.
Tri-County Health had not attempted to contact FEC United as of Feb. 16, he said, only staff at the event venue. The health agency's approach has been to contact venues and event facilities directly, he said.
The Rock's lead pastor, Mike Polhemus, said on Feb. 2, before Tri-County Health began outreach, that he attended the FEC event at The Rock.
Polhemus said the footage did not depict what the event looked like from beginning to end, but he would not describe to what extent people spaced themselves apart or wore masks outside of what the video showed during a message of support for Congresswoman Lauren Boebert.
“It puts it in a poor point of view when you take a snapshot of something,” he said.
Polhemus placed responsibility for following pandemic precautions on FEC United, saying “it's our facility but we don't lead the event.”
“It was held at The Rock," he said. "FEC runs the event. We don't manage the event, we don't run the event."
Asked if he believed the church has a duty to ensure organizations renting its facility follow protocols, Polhemus said “we are not the enforcers” and that Tri-County Health should contact FEC regarding any violations.
Polhemus said the church takes pandemic precautions during events it organizes and has not had a COVID-19 case in more than a month.
“We are doing things to prevent the virus. We do care for people,” he said.
Some community members expressed their disapproval of the event on the social media post, Polhemus said, but he said it is better for people to focus on good work the church does in the community.
The church operates a large food bank and participates in the Winter Shelter Network, which opens church doors at night for people without housing.
FEC United and Oltmann have generated controversy, including for the armed wing of FEC's operation and Oltmann's recent naming in a lawsuit alleging defamation for spreading election conspiracies, according to multiple media reports.
Polhemus said “we align with Jesus” when asked if he had concerns about the church working with FEC United. Polhemus said FEC does not describe its armed branch as a militia, that he may not be aware of all the group's controversies and he believes the organization is focused on helping the community.
Polhemus could not later be reached for comment regarding Tri-County's efforts to contact the church.
COVID-19 cases have declined in recent weeks and Douglas County has since been moved to lighter Level Yellow restrictions on the pandemic dial.
But Hlavacek said people should still be following proper social distancing, such as keeping 6 feet from one another when possible, wearing masks and good hand washing.
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