Behind the curve: When COVID-19 restrictions ease, how should churches react?

As government restrictions drop away, churches may still want to consider rules such as capacity limits depending on local conditions, says the Rev. Michael Garner. -image: eyes studio
By on March 4, 2022
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As this issue was heading to press in early March, the Omicron wave of COVID-19 seemed on the way out. Governments across Canada were loosening restrictions and changing their messaging. From Ontario to Saskatchewan, they were signaling the end of vaccine passports, lockdowns and even masking requirements.

While authorities signal they want to be done with the pandemic, some public health experts and church leaders, however, are urging caution in the church’s reopening.

The Rev. Michael Garner, public health advisor to the bishop of Ottawa, says the essential question facing religious communities remains the same as it has been throughout the pandemic: Will they follow public health guidelines to the letter or will they be more cautious than the law requires? With a 14-year background in infectious disease epidemiology, Garner has advised leaders at various levels of the church on how to decide whether to adopt more restrictive COVID-19 measures than the government requires.

“We shouldn’t be driven by the government in what we’re doing,” says Garner. “We need to abide by the rules— we can’t be more permissive—but we need to understand the science and our local context.”

According to Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and a professor of information at the University of Toronto, there may be good reasons for churches to maintain stricter health measures. He points, for example, to the situation in Toronto leading up to Christmas. The Omicron wave was pumping up case counts across the province and especially in densely populated cities, but the Ontario government held off on introducing any new public health measures—possibly, he says, to avoid being seen as “the grinch” at a time when curbs on social gatherings would have been especially unpopular.

“There’s no question in my mind that Ontario did not act when it should have,” says Furness.

He says he has consulted with several places of worship across the Greater Toronto Area to help them tailor their safety measures to the pandemic’s various phases. By late December, he says, the advice he would have given would have been to suspend large gatherings—and failing that, to require the wearing of N95 masks, to heavily ventilate church meeting spaces and to ban singing in groups, even while masked.

When we sing, Furness says, our breath carries out particles from deep inside our lungs, where the highest concentrations of virus are found in infected people. Even with masks on, he believes, that’s one of the riskiest things we can do.

“I can’t say ‘slap a mask on and everything’s fine.’ I’m not sure that masks will actually do their job when you’re opening your mouth wider. They’re not designed for singing—they’re designed for really minimal talking,” he says.

It was Jan. 5 when the Ontario government issued an order bringing the province back to a modified step two of its Roadmap to Reopen—four days after new cases in Ontario had hit an all-time high with 18,445 reported on Jan That number was likely a significant underestimate, says Furness, as the virus’s growth rate had outstripped Ontario’s testing capacity.

“The government should be guiding us. That’s the way it ought to be. And increasingly that is not the case,” says Furness. “When government lets us down, what agency do we have? What obligation do we have?”

Many Anglican dioceses in Canada have seen themselves as obliged to go further than the government during the pandemic—including the largest one.

“We have always given ourselves permission to be even more conservative on protocols than the government might be,” says Andrew Asbil, bishop of the diocese of Toronto. The Jan. 5 announcement from the province left the limit for religious gatherings at 50 per cent capacity. But with cases high, other dioceses already shutting down and Toronto clergy beginning to call in sick, Asbil says the diocesan leadership had a duty to act.

“The most vulnerable among us are coming to church,” he says, referring to elderly and immunocompromised people most in danger from COVID-19. “We owe it to ourselves to be agents of compassion, to always look for the route that will make it possible for everyone to thrive and to express caution where things are not in balance.” The diocese closed churches to in-person worship effective Jan. 10.

The diocese of Ottawa, meanwhile, had already shut down in-person worship before Christmas.

Government health officials were hinting late this winter at a more permanent reduction in pandemic restrictions. “Learning to live with COVID can be seen as akin to something along the lines of how we manage influenza on a yearly basis,” Toronto public health chief Eileen De Villa said as far back as Jan. 28. And as this article was being written, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and Alberta had announced plans to drop all of their pandemic restrictions. Even Quebec, which was previously mulling a tax on residents who refused to get vaccinated, had reversed course.

“After March 14, almost all restrictions will be lifted,” said Quebec Premier Francois Legault in a Feb. 9 press conference. “We’re taking a calculated risk to learn how to live with the virus.”

But as those restrictions drop away, Garner says, churches and dioceses should still be prepared to coordinate with their local public health units, monitor the case counts and hospitalizations in their areas and act accordingly. That may mean anything from cutting service capacity to going back to earlier phases of reopening, as government restrictions may not be based solely on reducing COVID-19 spread going forward.

Science is just one of many factors in the provincial governments’ policy, he says. “I’m not even saying that’s a bad thing,” he adds. “They have to consider economics, they have to consider many more things than we have to. As a church we need to consider the safety of our congregation and what the science is telling us. We can be a little more clear.”

Ross Upshur, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, takes a more critical view of how churches should weigh government advice, especially considering the surge in Toronto over the holidays. He says he’s starting to hear people—including policymakers— interpreting data to support what they want to see, which could skew government decisions toward loosening measures before it’s prudent.

“You can’t fault people for acting in good conscience on the best advice of [officials] making those recommendations,” Upshur says. “But what we’ve learned over the past few years is just how fallible that advice is—which means it needs to be communicated with suitable caveats and humility.”

Garner is right to suggest those decisions be made one parish or diocese at a time, says Upshur. While the early days of the pandemic saw nationwide shutdowns, it’s becoming increasingly clear that outbreaks progress at different rates depending on the population density and travel patterns in different communities, he says. Even within a single diocese like Ottawa, the outlying rural areas require a different approach than the urban core.

“I think there’s no other way to make the final decision but on a local basis,” says Upshur. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, while more reliable than rapid antigen tests, are unevenly available, and so, he says, case numbers based on them may not be the clearest measure of infection risk. But church officials can coordinate with their local public health units for help interpreting more useful metrics like test positivity rates and the concentration of virus DNA in wastewater. That data can guide decisions on what precautions are necessary when case numbers rise again.

“The nice thing about local public health units is they like to work with community partners,” he says. “They actually know the epidemiology in the area exquisitely well.”

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  • Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.