Calgary pastor says church will continue to break COVID-19 rules, days after health order issued

Police and Alberta Health Services responded to a southeast Calgary church on Sunday, after the pastor continued to encourage congregants to break public health rules following a fine and health inspection order. 

Pastor Tim Stephens wrote in an emailed newsletter to Fairview Baptist Church congregants on Wednesday that he had received a $1,200 fine from Calgary bylaw officers for violating public health orders. 

“I addressed the regulations theologically, scientifically, legally, and politically. I knew that receiving a fine would be a real possibility. Having received one now, the course is unchanged,” he wrote, adding that he would not be following the restrictions and reducing capacity to ensure physical distancing or enforcing mask use within the church.

There are currently more than 5,000 active cases of COVID-19 in Calgary, more than 37,000 people in the city have recovered and 407 have died.

The city’s R-value is 1.02, meaning that each person who contracts COVID-19 will infect more than one other person. 

Crowded auditorium, no masks

An officer with Alberta Health Services said an inspection found that only two of approximately 75 attendees were wearing masks, the pastor and church staff were unmasked and rows in the auditorium were full, with people sitting side-by-side in rows less than two metres apart. 

The inspection also found that there was no cleaning or disinfecting of high-touch surfaces between services.

The officer issued the following orders to the church verbally on Monday, and in a written order on Tuesday. 

  • That staff and attendees wear masks.
  • That the church calculate its allowed capacity under public health restrictions, and not exceed 15 per cent of fire code capacity. 
  • Ensure that physical distancing is enforced.
  • Post signage instructing those showing COVID-19 symptoms or who may have been exposed to not enter the building. 
  • Complete a risk mitigation plan and submit it to AHS. 

The church was given until Friday to complete those directives.

It was not ordered to close, but was advised that further work could be required to ensure compliance with the Public Health Act or to prevent a public health nuisance.

Police confirmed they were called to assist AHS with enforcement at the church on Sunday. 

An AHS spokesperson said in a statement that AHS is aware some Albertans are actively disobeying public health orders. The spokesperson did not say if additional fines or orders were levied against the church, but said that places of worship that don’t follow orders are at risk of closure orders or fines. 

” At this time, faith services are permitted to operate under the current public health restrictions but are limited to 15 per cent of fire code occupancy for in-person attendance, along with other safety measures. As such, all businesses are required to respect and follow the orders of Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, at all times,” an emailed statement read.

In Sunday’s livestreamed sermon, both the pastor and a man passing out handouts to the congregation can be seen not wearing masks. 

Community association expresses concern

The Fairview Community Association sent a letter to the pastor on Sunday, expressing the board’s disappointment in the actions of the church and its members which it says show an ongoing disregard for community safety. 

“Fairview is made up of a diverse group of residents, from a variety of backgrounds and faiths, but we all want a safe and welcoming community to call home,” reads the letter, signed by board president Regan Klyn.

The community association said its board has passed a motion to indicate it will no longer hold meetings in the church’s space, even after large gatherings are once again allowed under provincial health restrictions.

“We are hopeful going forward your church will do what is necessary to minimize risk and to role model behaviour and choices that will protect our community — our neighbours and Fairview residents, but also the larger provincial population. Please do not continue to ignore the health of our community.”

Alberta’s current public health restrictions are expected to remain in place until Jan. 21. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, has urged people to continue to follow restrictions to ease pressure on hospitals.

“Our health-care system is still under extreme pressure and this is impacting our ability to care for all the health needs of Albertans,” she said during a public update on Thursday.

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