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Alberta churches dealt harshest COVID-19 measures in a year

  • May 14, 2021

Houses of worship were among the many sectors of Alberta society hit with the most stringent COVID-19 capacity guidelines since the first wave of the virus last spring. New regulations are limiting in-person worship services to 15 people in high case areas, down from the 15 per cent of building fire code capacity.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to Calgary Bishop William McGrattan.

“My immediate reaction was recognizing that the situation in Alberta is critical in certain areas of the province and certain decisions would probably be in the best of public health and safety,” said McGrattan. “In some ways, I was preparing myself for the eventuality of this kind of announcement.”

This sweeping elevation of lockdown measures is being executed due to Alberta posting a seven-day average daily case count of 466.4 per million people as of May 6, the highest in North America. Michigan is second overall at 334.8, and Manitoba is second highest among Canadian provinces at 229.3. Another motivating factor is that variants account for more than 55 per cent of active cases, as well as the seven-day average for hospitalizations is 666 people.

Among the wide-ranging “stop the spike” province-wide restrictions, unveiled during a May 4 primetime television address from Premier Jason Kenney, is a shutdown of in-person K-12 learning until May 25, a closure of indoor dining, capacity cuts to retail establishment occupancy from 25 to 15 per cent (or 10 in high-case regions) and all health services are appointment only. Higher case regions like Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and Lethbridge have even more restrictions (listed on the Government of Alberta website).

Fr. Paul Kavanagh, a senior mission leadership lead for the Edmonton archdiocese and rector at St. Joseph’s Basilica, said he expected tougher restrictions despite the success of the Alberta Catholic community in ensuring no major outbreak emanates from a church.

“I think the protocols we have had in place the past several months have been very strong for our parishioners, our clergy and our staff,” said Kavanagh. “Sometimes this news is hard to hear, but we continue to follow the direction of the chief medical officer.”

Not all Albertans are as understanding as Kavanagh and McGrattan. The new restrictions were announced just days after a No More Lockdowns rodeo near Bowden, Alta., attracted 4,000 people during the first weekend of May in defiance of Alberta Health Services stipulations. Kenney strongly condemned this gathering.

This spirit of rebellion has been evident in other Alberta faith denominations for some time. James Coates, the pastor of GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove, is on trial for leading church services in violation of health orders, and pastor Artur Pawlowski of Calgary’s Street Church branded Calgary police officers as “Nazis,” “Gestapo” and “communists” as he told them to leave a service on April 3. Pawlowski was arrested May 8 for failing to abide by public health regulations during a service.

McGrattan and Kavanagh both state they have not received any large-scale pressure from parishioners to disobey the government.

As of now, both Calgary and Edmonton are interpreting that the priest is not factored into the count of 15 people.

While online registration systems will likely get revamped to only allow 15 people, a first-come, first-served approach will be employed. Guidelines listed on the Calgary diocesan website state priests “may also consider encouraging parishioners to only attend one Mass in the next three weeks to give others the chance to attend Mass in person.”

Priests are also welcomed to add more Masses throughout the week and weekend if they so choose.

These restrictions will be in effect until at least May 25.

Manitoba has also introduced new restrictions, suspending faith gatherings as or May 9 until at least May 30. Livestreamed Masses will continue to be held. Ontario remains in lockdown as well, with Masses suspended until at least May 20.

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