Police say they are working with the local public health unit to find ways to address issues with compliance of COVID-19 measures after the latest in a series of alleged incidents involving the Church of God in Aylmer, Ont.
A video posted to YouTube on Jan. 24 begins outside with what appears to be a physically-distant choir singing, but ends inside with roughly 100 people standing in the pews.
In the video, pastor Henry Hildebrandt can be heard saying, “we’re not having service, we’re just touring.”
After the group sings Joy to the World, Hildebrandt says, “I totally forgot to tell you that there’s masks at the entrance” and the crowd erupts in laughter.
Since the onset of the pandemic, at least 750,684 cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed in Canada, including at least 19,186 deaths.
In Aylmer, Southwestern Public Health has recorded at least 351 cases of COVID-19 so far in the small town, which works out to a crude rate of 4,685 per 100,000 population. For comparison, the cumulative rate in Toronto is 2,565.7 per 100,000 population, according to Public Health Ontario.
The government of Ontario declared a state of emergency and imposed a stay-at-home order on Jan. 12, which includes a ban on indoor gatherings and activities, including religious services.
Some religious services, such as weddings and funerals, are permitted provided they include no more than 10 people and physical distancing can be maintained.
The rules apply to the entire province and will remain in effect until at least Feb. 11.
Hildebrandt is already facing charges under the Reopening Ontario Act in connection with a church service held on Dec. 27, 2020 and a Jan. 6 gathering as well as a charge for attending a large rally in London in November that was held in opposition to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
In a statement on Monday which does not directly name Hildebrandt but which references “the Church of God pastor,” police said that they will be seeking input from Southwestern Public Health to “develop further mitigating strategies specific to this group.”
Chief Zvonko Horvat says the goal is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to “try to get some compliance there.”
“The last two weeks, they have been in compliance with drive-in service, which was positive for the community and sort of eased tensions a little bit,” he told Global News.
“And then all of a sudden on the 24th, yesterday, they decide to engage in the breach of the emergency orders, which was very unfortunate and in my view, irresponsible from those that organized the service.”
As of publication time, no charges have been laid in connection with the investigation.
Police asked the public in a release “to exercise patience” as officers “sift through the evidence and lay appropriate charges.”
“And I just want to thank the community, for the most part, who are supportive of the police and current orders and are abiding by those orders,” Horvat added.
The Church of God was not the only church in the region to court controversy over the weekend.
Police in Waterloo Region say Trinity Bible Chapel in Woolwich, Ont., allegedly held an in-person service Sunday, despite a court order compelling it to comply with provincial COVID-19 pandemic rules.
Investigators say they are working with public health officials to ensure “appropriate action” is taken.
Ontario legislator Randy Hillier, an independent MPP and vocal critic of the province’s lockdown measures, tweeted a photo yesterday that appeared to be from the service.
Roughly nine hours later, he tweeted a photo of himself with Hildebrandt as well as Adam Skelly, the owner of Adamson Barbecue, who was previously arrested by Toronto police after repeatedly breaking health regulations imposed by the city and province.
Hildebrandt had travelled to Toronto in late November to support Skelly.
— with files from Global News’ Matthew Trevithick and Kevin Nielsen as well as The Canadian Press.