‘Be part of the solution’: Aylmer, Ont., police chief calls on churchgoers to follow restrictions

FILE - Pastor Henry Hildebrandt speaks during a drive-in Sunday service at The Church of God in Aylmer, Ont. on Sunday, April 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins

Authorities in Aylmer, Ont., are asking members of the town’s Church of God to “lead by example” and abide by provincial pandemic orders during a planned drive-in service this Sunday that is expected to see an increased police presence.

Police are looking to avoid a situation like the one that transpired on Jan. 24, when a drive-in service at the John Street North church ended with dozens of maskless people entering the building for an extended period of time at the invitation of the church’s pastor.

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“We are asking citizens and leaders in our community to be part of the solution and not a problem by abiding by the current restrictions to protect our community,” said Zvonko Horvat, Aylmer’s police chief, in a statement Friday.

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“Collectively we can enhance the safety of our community, citizens and family members and reduce the strain on our health-care workers.”

In addition to the increased police presence, officials say they will respond to any violations of the province’s emergency orders.

At least 47 people have been identified in connection to last Sunday’s gathering, which well exceeded indoor gathering limits put in place by the province.

As of Wednesday, tickets were being issued to 29 people with an additional 18 summons being processed for those responsible for hosting the event, and for those who lived outside of Elgin County, police said. 980 CFPL has reached out to Aylmer police for an update.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Video shows maskless crowd inside Aylmer, Ont., church'
Coronavirus: Video shows maskless crowd inside Aylmer, Ont., church

Under the province’s state of emergency and stay-at-home order, declared Jan. 12 and in place until at least Feb. 9, indoor gatherings and activities are banned, while outdoor organized public events and gatherings are limited to five people and must comply with physical distancing and face-covering requirements.

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Weddings, funerals, and other religious services, rites or ceremonies may be held if physical distancing can be maintained and face coverings are worn, with an indoor/outdoor limit of 10 people.

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Drive-in services are allowed but are subject to some conditions — attendees must remain in their vehicles and vehicles must be at least two metres apart.

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Speaking with 980 CFPL on Monday, Horvat said the church had been in compliance with its drive-in services the previous two weeks, which helped eased ongoing tensions in the town.

“And then all of a sudden on the 24th… 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.”

Pastor Henry Hildebrandt is already facing charges under the Reopening Ontario Act in connection with a church service held on Dec. 27 and a gathering on Jan. 6, as well as a charge for attending a large rally in London in November that was held in opposition to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

His son, Herbert, 37, is also facing charges of his own, but of a criminal nature, including assault relating to an incident involving Malahide Township Councillor Jack Dykxhoorn, 84, in mid-December, and obstructing and intimidating a police officer following an incident outside of the Church of God on Dec. 27.

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Pastor Hildebrandt and members of the Church of God have long been vocal opponents of the province’s pandemic measures, hosting drive-in services early in the pandemic that were, at the time, in contravention of provincial rules.

The pastor has also appeared at several anti-restriction demonstrations in the province since the pandemic began, including in London, Aylmer, and Toronto, including one held in late November in support of Adamson Barbecue owner Adam Skelly, who was present at the church on Sunday.

The small town of Aylmer has been one of the hardest-hit municipalities in southwestern Ontario when it comes to reported cases. As of Friday, the town’s cumulative case rate was equivalent to that of 4,738 cases per 100,000 people.

In comparison, the cumulative case rate for all of Peel Public Health was 3,349.

— With files from Jacquelyn LeBel

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