Alberta church opens on Sunday despite closure order over COVID-19 violations
EDMONTON -- The congregation of a church west of Edmonton that was ordered to close for violating Alberta's public health orders gathered on Sunday.
"So good to see you all this morning. What a blessing it is to gather on the Lord's Day. We're going to come to the Lord's Supper this morning. What a blessing that is," GraceLife Church's Pastor James Coates opened the service.
"And we have another wonderful opportunity to honour law enforcement."
That morning, it wasn't just members who attended the church in Parkland County; two Alberta Health Services inspectors and RCMP were also there.
"Now let me just say this before you do that, AHS doesn't like it when we cheer," Coates directed the churchgoers. "So in this occasion, because cheering is apparently a high-risk activity, no cheering. Let's just stand and thank our law enforcement."
At that, the congregation broke out into a round of applause.
An order to close was issued for GraceLife Church on Jan. 29 after an AHS inspector found the previous weekend about 290 people had attended a service there, exceeding current rules allowing 15 per cent of total capacity. AHS also said attendees and staff or volunteers were seen without masks and failing to maintain two-metre distancing.
The same violations were made on Jan. 31, an AHS spokesperson told CTV News Edmonton that afternoon.
It said more people – about 300 – were at the church that morning than the previous weekend.
However, while authorities would not confirm whether the church was fined, AHS did say it was exploring possible legal avenues as a result of the contravention.
"The message needs to remain clear to everybody that these orders are here not just to protect them, but to protect all of us and protect our health-care system from becoming overburdened the way it was last month and the month before," Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said on Monday.
However, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw wouldn't comment when asked later that afternoon.
"I've spoken with chiefs of police and Alberta Health Services to be clear that a gradually escalating process is what we have set out the orders to be able to do, which is: If the education and support fail, then the framework absolutely includes penalties escalating to fines. But it's not appropriate for me to direct in an individual case what exactly should happen," the top doctor told media.
"That is at the discretion of local law enforcement and local Alberta Health Services officials who have the legal authority to make those decisions independently. And those who are putting their communities at risk need to be reminded that is not an option, that this is mandatory."
GraceLife was first cited in December.
Since then, attention from the church, public and media realms has grown, its pastor noted Sunday.
"That's not our desire…. Any honest evaluation of the way we've handled this season would indicate that we're trying to lead tranquil and quiet lives. We are here as the flock at GraceLife to worship our Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ," Coates said that morning.
"We're not doing any kind of pomp and stance. We're not doing public announcements and drawing attention to the fact that we're gathering. We're just here to worship our Lord and saviour peacefully. But the world is watching. And not just the world," he added, speaking of churches that have followed in GraceLife's lead, or sent well wishes. "There is so much support that has rolled in from all over the place. People are praying for us."