More than 1,000 leaders of faith communities from across Alberta, including the Rt. Rev. Jane Alexander, Bishop of Edmonton, participated in a town hall meeting, held by phone on May 21, to discuss joint efforts to keep Albertans safe from the COVID-19 pandemic and to seek clarification on public health guidelines with regards to public worship.
Hosting the call were Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, who expressed gratitude to faith communities for the spiritual, mental, and physical support they have provided during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Over the past few weeks faith leaders have provided leadership and care within constraints,” said Kenney. “You have provided pastoral care to the elderly, to the isolated, to members of your communities in need of spiritual and practical support. Thank you for, in many ways, being the heart and soul of society; in bringing loving care and attention to your congregants and the broader community, and for the responsibility you have demonstrated as leaders and faith communities in helping us limit the spread (of the COVID-19 virus) and save lives.”
“As the number of new infections, active cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and fatalities continues to go down, the province will look at further relaxing guidelines for places of public worship,” Kenney said.
“If we continue to see people act responsibly and follow the basic public health advice, I’m confident we’ll be able to move forward with Phases Two and Three and get back to something close to normal.”
In seeking a balance between the public health imperative, freedoms and values, as well as broader social and economic interests, Kenney said the province is “going to need to work with faith communities to address the desperate needs of Alberta families who have had their livelihoods, as well as spiritual, emotional and mental wellbeing, impacted by the pandemic.” He noted that the Premier’s Council on Civil Society includes representation from the faith community.
Dr. Hinshaw echoed the Premier’s words of gratitude for faith community members and “the work you’ve been doing to support your communities. These challenging times are taking a toll on everyone physically, mentally and spiritually. I know you’ve been working hard in different ways than we’re all used to, in order to offer comfort to those who need it most,” she said.
Hinshaw said the daily prayer she has been receiving from one of her pastors throughout the pandemic has been “a sustaining thread for me throughout this journey.”
Knowledge of the value that faith communities bring to their members, helped the government arrive at its decision to cap the number of attendees at places of worship “at a limit higher than at any other indoor gathering in Canada,” she said. “I’ve heard your keen desire to be able to meet together again. This is being done gradually as we have seen significant outbreaks in faith settings in Alberta and other parts of the world. It is these lessons that informed our guidelines for communities of faith.”
Representatives from several religious faiths, including Christian, Jewish and Muslim, asked questions and stated concerns during the town hall call. Hinshaw committed to researching further specific suggestions, indicating a strong desire to work with faith leaders to help meet the needs of their congregants.
Even so, she encouraged them to be patient with the phased approach, recognising that some of the current restrictions, such as limits on children’s ministries, will be eased in time.
For example, “that Sunday school be able to follow the same protocol as daycare is an excellent suggestion and, as we enter Phase Two in the coming weeks, maybe we can plan to expand some of the guidance,” she said.
In addressing a concern about protecting elderly and vulnerable parishioners, Hinshaw said there is an important distinction to be made between individual and collective risk.
“An individual who is older and/or has a chronic health condition can choose to take an individual risk to attend worship. However, an activity such as a congregation choosing to sing together is a collective risk – they’re putting everyone in that congregation at risk,” she said.
“We’re trying to focus our guidance (which includes mandatory restrictions) on lowering the collective risk, while simply providing advice on individual risk reduction. We recommend that faith communities provide options for those who are older or have chronic medical conditions to remain connected to their faith community if they don’t wish to take on the risk of leaving their house and joining a collective worship service.”
Some of the commonly asked questions Hinshaw has received about the guidelines for communities of faith include the decision to limit attendance at places of worship to 50 people or 1/3 of a congregation’s size. In contrast, restaurants have been able to operate at 50 per cent capacity with patrons seated at physically-distance tables, maximum six people at each table, recommended to be of the same household.
“This guideline came at the recommendation of faith leaders who were asked for their input into how the process to safely gather together could be started,” she said. “Limiting worship gatherings to 50 people, limits the risk of a super-spreader event.” Furthermore, she said, all restaurant diners are not part of a common community, such as a worship gathering, resulting in a much lower risk of spreading the virus. “Tragically we’ve seen here in Alberta and elsewhere that this virus poses the greatest danger when people (from multiple households) gather together in one space for a common purpose.” She cited an incident at a church in Calgary in the early stages of the pandemic as a cautionary tale: "the congregation had a worship service and then gathered together for a celebratory social event. There were only 41 people present, and they were careful to observe two meter distancing and good hand hygiene. They followed all the rules and did nothing wrong. Despite that, 24 of the 41 people at the party ended up infected. Two of them died.”
Hinshaw said the guideline for congregational leaders to document the names of people attending public worship “is simply a precaution to help notify people when they may have been exposed to the virus by someone in their congregation: “the contact list stays with worship leaders and can be destroyed in two weeks’ time.” Premier Kenney further clarified that the only time a contact list would be seen by government officials is in the event of an outbreak. “People who do not want to give their contact information will not be barred from attending, it’s not a legal obligation,” he said.
Hinshaw said the current restriction on congregational singing is not likely to be lifted anytime soon.
“I know how important singing is but, unfortunately, what we know is that singing is an activity with the ability to spread the virus farther than other action,” she said. A recently published report showed that at a choir practice of 61 people, 53 people contracted COVID from one individual and two people died.
Two callers voiced their opinion that these unprecedented public health orders could be perceived as an infringement on religious freedom.
“I want to reassure you, I’m not here to dictate how you should practice your faith, nor how you should care for the spiritual needs of your community,” Hinshaw responded. “But, my job is to provide you with the best possible advice about how to protect your community from illness and, in the worst cases, death. Wherever possible, I encourage you to find ways to mitigate risks to your community, especially when it comes to activities that carry more risk than others, for example rituals that involve touching people or communal objects. I ask you, as my partners in ensuring the safety of our communities, to look closely at your practices and carefully plan how you can provide spiritual support in a safe way. We have a long way to go, and Albertans and I will continue to rely on you as an example and for your leadership and wisdom.”