The doors were locked.
Rows of pews were taped off.
The guests were arriving, as instructed, from an underground parking garage through a back door that led to the church interior.
Then a city official crashed the wedding, which took place in early July in SS Peter and Paul’s Church, with its picturesque edifice overlooking Washington Square Park in North Beach.
The pastor did not seem surprised by the official’s order to stop the proceedings, according to a city report, and the wedding party moved outdoors to a basketball court where the ceremony — minus the nearly 100 guests who had assembled — continued on Zoom.
San Francisco’s city attorney had warned Catholic leaders to stop holding illegal indoor events only days earlier. Yet the leadership of SS Peter and Paul’s helped organize the wedding ceremony, the city said. The celebration included a rehearsal dinner and reception with invitations extended to large groups from multiple households, at a time when such gatherings remain heavily restricted in much of the Bay Area.
In the days following, the newlywed couple and at least eight attendees tested positive for the coronavirus, two guests told The Chronicle.
The potentially exposed guests flew back to Nashville, Arizona and San Diego, hot spots of the pandemic, potentially spreading the virus and providing a textbook example of health officials’ biggest fears about such large gatherings. The event showed the challenges authorities face in enforcing health orders.
It also illustrates how the consequences of a couple’s simple wish to carry out their dream wedding — and all the decisions to break safety measures that flowed from that choice — can rapidly ripple outward, fueling the conditions that have led to the surge the nation has seen in coronavirus infections.
For UC Berkeley infectious disease expert John Swartzberg, hearing about the nuptials “infuriated” him.
“This is the perfect example of why public health officials have been trying to convince people of the problems with getting together in crowds,” he said. “And I would be shocked if we didn’t see this consequence. This should be the poster child in why people should take responsibility.”
SS Peter and Paul’s Pastor Gael Sullivan said the city’s stop order came so close to the wedding that he tried to work with the couple and their families to provide them “a service of some kind.”
“I had said to them they had to comply with the minimum number for the service and when they showed up with more people, they agreed with sending them away,” Sullivan said.
Inside the newsroom
Anonymous sources: The Chronicle strives to attribute all information we report to credible, reliable, identifiable sources. Presenting information from an anonymous source occurs extremely rarely, and only when that information is considered crucially important and all other on-the-record options have been exhausted. In such cases, The Chronicle has complete knowledge of the unnamed person’s identity and of how that person is in position to know the information. The Chronicle’s detailed policy governing the use of such sources, including the use of pseudonyms, is available on SFChronicle.com.
Archdiocese spokesman Mike Brown said it can’t monitor every activity in its 89 parishes.
“I’m certain those arrangements were not made with approval by the Archdiocese,” he said. He also said that no one from the wedding party had contacted the archdiocese to alert it of the subsequent infections.
Messages to the bride and groom and their families were not returned, but one guest posted on Instagram two days after the wedding.
“There were so many turns, adjustments, will the church close, will they be able to get married in this church, that it would make your head spin!” she wrote.
“Down to the final 30 minutes before ceremony, [the bride] waiting excitedly in the bride room of the church, and the news comes in … an official from the city is here telling them they can’t get married in the church. (All the while, across the street is a huge park filled with people, not wearing masks and not social distancing, but that was OK.) This beautiful church holds over 800 … there was 80 people attending the wedding.”
The young couple wanted to get married at the landmark North Beach church to follow the groom’s parents and grandparents, who also wed there. After the original April wedding was postponed because of coronavirus concerns, they wrote on their wedding website, the couple rescheduled for July.
Three days before the wedding, the father of the bride emailed guests about safety guidelines for the festivities, including eliminating paper programs, blocking off pews and allowing Communion only for the bride and groom, according to an email obtained by The Chronicle.
“For those that want to practice the strongest forms of social distancing at all times we understand that and support you,” the guidelines read. “Everyone should feel free to wear a face covering at all times and to socially distance from those that are not part of your household.”
That email was followed by a warning from the bride’s father on the eve of the wedding.
“We have had another change in plans,” he wrote in that email. “Due to concerns with the visibility to the public of the wedding there is a change in arrival procedures. We will no longer be entering the church publicly through the main entrance.”
He explained that all guests must park in the underground parking garage. “The path to the church includes going up about two stories of stairs. Sorry!” he wrote.
Father Sullivan told The Chronicle the plans were made not to avoid detection, but to prevent tourists and other people from entering the church during the ceremony. He also said the agreement with the family was to hold an outdoor ceremony.
The night before the wedding, about 40 people attended a rehearsal dinner at Harborview Restaurant and Bar, where they ate outside on the Embarcadero Center roof-deck that overlooks the Ferry Building. Masks were not worn, and distancing was not observed, a Harborview patron who asked for anonymity told The Chronicle.
The Chronicle has granted that person and others anonymity, in accordance with the newspaper’s policy on anonymous sources, and is exercising editorial discretion in not naming the couple.
Karen Liu, a Harborview spokeswoman, said her restaurant takes safety rules “very seriously,” adding that the eatery worked with the host to assign guests to tables with members of the same household or family.
“From my observations, the guests wore masks or were sitting separately at socially distanced tables,” she said.
No one has contacted the restaurant about any possible exposure from that party, she said. No employees have felt sick, and they maintain daily temperature checks, wear masks and limit contact with customers, she said.
“As a precaution, due to your report,” she said, “we will send our staff to get tested as well.”
As the hour drew near, the city attorney’s office got an alarming tip: a large wedding was planned at SS Peter and Paul’s.
The North Beach church was already a particular subject of concern for officials. In its late June letter to the archdiocese, the city attorney’s office cited an “alarming failure to follow common-sense safety protocols” and threatened to pursue a temporary restraining order if the church didn’t acquiesce.
The letter specifically called out SS Peter and Paul’s Church for repeatedly violating the order to limit religious gatherings to outside and no more than 12 people. The letter said that on June 14 the office received complaints about the church holding six public Masses.
“Upon reviewing the reports of multiple San Francisco parishes holding indoor mass over the last few weeks, (San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón) has concluded that the archdiocese is putting not only its parishioners but the larger community at risk of serious illness and death,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in the letter. “Dr. Aragón finds quite troubling the failures to comply with the face covering health order that are endangering not only parishioners, but particularly the children who serve as altar boys.”
Investigators inspected the church June 28 and found Sunday Mass had been canceled, but that the church continued with twice-daily public Masses on the other days.
On June 30, Paula Carney, the archdiocese general counsel, responded to the city attorney, saying Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone believed the city gave confusing orders at previous meetings, but that he now had made it clear to parishes that they must not hold large indoor gatherings.
On July 1, The Chronicle ran a front-page article about the dispute.
After receiving the tip, city officials found the couple’s wedding website, which identified the church, and emailed Carney that afternoon.
“I am hoping this is an unfounded complaint and that this website is simply outdated,” Deputy City Attorney Megan Ryan wrote.
When she did not respond, the city attorney’s office sent Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith to the church to check on the tip.
“Following up on an email I sent you on Saturday, we have confirmed that the leadership of Ss. Peter & Paul Church attempted to hold a large gathering for a wedding inside the church on July 4, 2020 — a violation of the Order of the Health Officer,” Ryan wrote in a July 7 letter admonishing the archdiocese for the event.
Ryan detailed what Keith observed at the scene.
“At the church, the front door was closed, but people were entering the church through the garage,” Ryan wrote. “At the garage, a gentleman wearing a Salesian Brothers shirt asked the representative if he was there to attend the wedding. The Office representative then explained his role with the City, and that this indoor gathering violated the Health Order and could not go forward. The gentleman identified himself as in charge of the church and went inside, but did not return.”
Keith went inside and found photographers and others setting up for an indoor wedding. He found Father Sullivan and informed him that such a wedding was prohibited and could not continue, according to the letter.
“Pastor Sullivan did not indicate any surprise that the ongoing indoor gathering in his Parish violated the Health Order,” Ryan wrote. “Indeed, the church had signage posted acknowledging that the Health Order did not permit indoor services.”
Sullivan told The Chronicle he had been unaware of the indoor wedding and was upstairs when his staff alerted him of Keith’s presence. When he came downstairs, the father of the bride had already started removing guests, Sullivan said.
The investigator asked the priest to move the gathering outdoors and complete the service subject to “strict distancing compliance and everyone wearing face coverings,” Ryan wrote. Sullivan said he agreed and the couple married on the outside playground while most of the guests watched a live Zoom of the ceremony from their cars, one person familiar with the event said.
Photos of the wedding posted online and viewed by The Chronicle showed a group of more than 12 at the ceremony, which was officiated by the bride’s uncle, a priest. San Francisco’s health order limits outdoor gatherings of people from multiple households to no more than 12.
John Coté, a spokesman for the city attorney, declined to comment on potential sanctions against the archdiocese.
After the abrupt change in plans at the church, the party moved to a reception held in the backyard of the East Bay home of relatives of the groom.
The party appeared to violate Contra Costa County health orders that allow only for small social bubbles of 12 involving a stable group to gather, according to scenes captured in a video posted by the wedding photographer.
The couple recommended social distancing in emailed guidelines but left it up to “everyone’s discretion to apply this. While we are not prohibiting handshakes and hugs they should be kept to a minimum.”
Police said they received no calls for service to the home or complaints about the party that night. Contra Costa County supervisors will consider adopting an ordinance Tuesday that would fine people and businesses that violate health orders — $100 to $500 for individuals, $250 to $1,000 for businesses.
The celebration concluded and guests returned home, flying around the country. Within five days, many in the wedding party had begun showing symptoms or testing positive for the coronavirus, according to two guests who learned of the infections. None of the known cases has led to hospitalizations, they said.
The guest who posted on Instagram about the wedding marveled at all the couple had overcome for the pandemic wedding.
“God was right there with her and (the groom) … whispering to them to ‘Press on. I’ve got this,’” she wrote. “This was the most beautiful wedding I have ever been to. Not because of the backdrop of where they got married, but because of the faith, love, patience, tears and joy that were evident throughout. He took care of all the details. When the photographer canceled the night before, He provided another. When the reception space canceled, He provided another one, better than the first. The caterer, the weather!”
Clarification: This story has been updated to properly characterize remarks by City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Coté.