COVID-19 restrictions tightened for faith groups; leaders will be consulted again

Dr. Bonnie Henry announced tighter restrictions on worship gatherings November 30. Government of BC photo

The other shoe dropped November 30, three weeks after Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix implied quite clearly to 120 religious leaders on a telephone town hall that tighter COVID-19 restrictions were on the way.

Dr. Henry announced Tuesday that all people attending worship services must wear masks and that services must be no more than 50 percent full, unless participants are 100 percent vaccinated.

The BC Centre for Disease Control posted a ‘Faith-Based, Spiritual and Worship Practices’ page December 1.

Previous guidelines stated that those attending religious gatherings were exempt from provincial mask mandates

While most churches and other religious groups will likely acquiesce to the new restrictions with little or no fuss, some may react negatively to the government tying the opportunity for full capacity to the requirement that participants be vaccinated.

New measures

Dr. Henry sent a letter on the afternoon of November 30 to faith leaders who have been involved in conversations with her. It read:

Hello friends,

Further to our recent discussions with faith leaders, this afternoon I announced new Provincial Health Officer orders to support faith leaders in reducing the risk of COVID-19 to their congregants during worship services.

This is necessary as we move into the season for greater gatherings for worship purposes and associated social interactionThis is also during a time when we expect to see an increased seasonal risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The measures announced today:

    • A requirement that worship services must be limited to 50% of seated capacity, unless all the participants are vaccinated, in which case the capacity could increase to 100%. While the BC Vaccine Card is an option available for this purpose, faith leaders will have the flexibility to design their own system to ensure that all participants are vaccinated, if that is the model they choose to follow.
    • A requirement that participants attending worship services, including choirs, must wear a face covering during worship services, including as participants come in to the place of worship and when they leave, until outside. Participants will be able to remove the face covering when consuming food or drink to allow for ceremonial activities. Readers and celebrants will be allowed to speak without a mask, subject to distancing requirements or barrier to prevent transmission.

She said the leaders were welcome to respond with “any questions, concerns or suggestions about these measures . . . Your ongoing support and assistance is much appreciated.”

Following the November 10 telephone town hall, Erin Knott, Assistant District Superintendent (Executive Administration and Governance) for the Canadian Pacific District of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, emailed me this insightful comment:

My gleanings were that Dr. Henry and Adrian Dix were looking for input from faith leaders on ways to harmonize the orders regarding masks and vaccination proof. Dr. Henry has proposed making masks mandatory in faith settings and either requiring vaccination proof to attend services or allowing mixed groups (vaccinated/unvaccinated) to attend with capacity limits in place to ensure greater social distancing.

Faith leaders are being contacted for another telephone town hall with Dix and Dr. Henry this Friday (December 3) “to discuss faith gatherings during the holiday season.”

Mixed response

Immediate responses from churches and denominations to Dr. Henry’s November 30 televised announcement have ranged from positive to negative, with most churches probably taking it in stride.(Many have not yet responded publicly.)

There have been three types of responses thus far:

  • Supportive

For example, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom spoke with host Stephen Quinn on The Early Edition December 1, saying of the new restrictions:

Well, honestly, they’re reassuring, because we’ve been following those same protocols voluntarily since we returned to in-person services back in May and since we came back inside because of the weather around September.

Many of our senior and vulnerable populations, they want this, they wanted to make sure that people were fully masked when they were in services with them and that people were vaccinated, and we’ve been requiring both. . . .

The role of faith leaders is to keep our people as safe as possible, physically and spiritually.

Treena Duncan

Treena Duncan, Executive Minister of the Pacific Mountain Regional Council of the United Church of Canada, posted a notice which began:

Today you may have heard that the Public Health Office has released new health orders in anticipation of seasonal celebrations, and an anticipated greater risk of virus spread. There were consultations with faith leaders and the response was to provide two options for communities of faith to manage potential transmission risks in the Community of Faith.

  • Cooperative

Several groups have simply taken note of the new measures and their willingness to cooperate. For example:

Jericho Ridge Community Church in Langley tweeted:

Nov 30 update to PHO orders: (1) Masks are now mandatory at all worship gatherings (for those born in 2016 and earlier or age 5+). (2) Seating capacity is limited to 50%. Our auditorium capacity is 325 so we do not expect impact on Sunday gatherings at this time. Thank you.

Pastor Derrick Hamre, lead pastor of Christian Life Assembly in Langley, tweeted:

New Health Orders will not stop us @clalangley from celebrations planned for Christmas, looking forward to Advent and First Christmas walking tour which starts tomorrow. Masks will be mandatory.

He added that the church will not be asking for vaccine passports.

  • Negative

Levi Minderhoud, BC Manager for ARPA Canada, tweeted “A deeply disappointing update” shortly after Dr. Henry made the announcement.

Possible issue

The province appears to have avoided the main concern raised by participants on the November 10 conference call. As noted in my earlier article, several leaders feared that a vaccine mandate would be instituted.

Erin Knott said in that article:

I got the sense that there wasn’t much pushback to making masks mandatory, but that requiring vaccination proof would not be welcomed by the majority of faith organizations and that it would be a significant point of contention and possibly division.

Kathy Smith, Stated Clerk, Classis BC Northwest of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, reflected a similar view in the notes she sent out to fellow CRC leaders, which included these responses from several pastors on the call:

  • Drive-through and parking lot options become less ideal during the fall/winter. Therefore, okay with a mask mandate, and fewer people. Not a vaccination requirement (will cause division).
  • If make vaccinations mandatory for churches, leaves three options: leave the ministry, don’t follow it or have to turn people away. None of which this pastor wants to do. Rather see churches not gather at all than turn people away. Masks and social distancing okay.
  • Cannot canonically turn people away from services or sacraments, so speak against vaccine mandate, in favour of mask mandate and capacity limits.
  • Against a vaccine mandate. Okay with mask mandate and capacity limits.
  • Against a vaccine mandate. Encourage province to soften its approach and make guidelines voluntary rather than mandated, as mandates encourage pushback.
  • No vaccine mandate. Willing to do everything they can to work with other restrictions, e.g., capacity limits and masks, in order to minister to people in their communities.

Some responses did not relate to the vaccine mandate; go here for the full list.

While no vaccine mandate has been instituted, the new measures only allow 100 percent capacity if all those in attendance are vaccinated. Some may say that this will exacerbate friction with congregations – that the government is applying a none-too-subtle pressure on faith groups to implement their own version of a vaccine mandate.

A December 1 Vancouver Sun article (‘COVID-19: Some B.C. places of worship prepare to check vaccine status at the door’) began with these words:

Worshippers without vaccine passports could find themselves turned away from busier services this weekend under new B.C.’s rules, according to leaders at some houses of worship.

Most of the groups consulted for the article were not Christian churches, though the article concluded:

“Parishes won’t be checking vaccination status,” said a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver in an email.

“They’re now exploring different options and most will likely add to their Mass schedules to ensure everyone is welcome at this time of year when churches are busiest,” he said.

Go here for the full article.

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3 comments for “COVID-19 restrictions tightened for faith groups; leaders will be consulted again

  1. At least the doors are not closed. But we cannot expect secular politicians to have any empathy towards faith groups, as we learned last year when this government chose taking churches to court over engaging in any constructive dialogue with the church leaders concerned.

    Canada is an increasingly secular nation in our legislatures, courts and educational institutions. This announcement should not be a surprise.

  2. The restrictions have only served to increase suspicion and antagonism towards the government among our leadership. Of especial concern is depending on leadership to police the policies. That is not in our job description. We aren’t here to do the province’s job, or their dirty work. Count me in the negative category.

    • Agreed. Why is the consultation group’s membership a secret? And why are our religious rights being curtailed exactly when cases and hospitalizations and LTC outbreaks are trending downward? Why, when the schools are kept open at all costs, is our children’s religious education being disrupted for a second year, measures impacting church school, Christmas plays and concerts, indeed children’s attendance at religious services which is essential to their religious education?

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