Alberta’s top doctor says her hands are tied when it comes to a rural church that is defying public COVID-19 health orders by hosting Sunday services with hundreds of maskless congregants.
Chief medical health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw says she helps set policy, but it’s up to Alberta Health Services and other law enforcement officials to take action.
“It’s critical that the enforcement of laws in the province is done in an independent way by those bodies who have the authority under legal frameworks to create orders or penalties,” Hinshaw told a virtual news conference Monday.
“I have spoken with chiefs of police and Alberta Health Services to be clear that a gradually escalating process (of deterrence) is what we have set out the orders to be able to do.”
GraceLife Church, located just west of Edmonton on Highway 627 in Parkland County, defied health inspectors on Sunday and hosted 300 people for its weekly service, said health officials.
The Sunday before, it had 290 and health rules on distancing and masking were not followed.
Alberta Health Services has been duelling with the church for six weeks over following COVID-19 health restrictions. RCMP issued a $1,200 fine in December for non-compliance.
AHS delivered an executive order last month directing the church to comply or close down. The church ignored it and, as of Monday, the calendar on its website had service set for the coming Sunday.
The church did not respond to phone and email requests for comment, but has posted an online notice that only church members and those getting membership are allowed in.
Church pastor James Coates, in his address Sunday, told congregants they do not seek a fight, but that the issue goes beyond their church.
“We’re just here to worship our lord and Saviour peacefully — but the world is watching,” said Coates in a video of the service archived online.
“People are praying for us. I’ve had videos sent to me this morning of pastors leading their congregations in prayer over this gathering, this moment, right now.
“We know that right now there’s a real sense in which heaven is very much aware of this moment, this gathering. If we could even see the angelic realm, we would see that we are protected by a legion of angels.”
The video depicts congregants standing side by side without masks.
Under current health regulations, faith-based services are limited to 15 per cent capacity, with masks and physical distancing mandatory.
Kerry Williamson, a spokesman for Alberta Health Services, did not address what will be done next with GraceLife, but noted the next step is an application to the Court of Queen’s Bench that can result in penalties.
“This is only done as a last resort,” Williamson said in an email.
“AHS does not control the types or scale of potential penalties levied by the courts.”
The province has been dealing with a number of disgruntled Albertans protesting extended lockdowns and restrictions on businesses and the economy.
Restaurants were closed to in-person dining, but last week, some in scattered locations opened anyway, claiming the existing health rules are unfair. And it was either open their doors now, or close them for good.
On Friday, Premier Jason Kenney announced restaurants will be allowed to open for in-person dining as of Feb. 8, subject to health restrictions.
At that news conference, Kenney criticized COVID-19 rule-breakers.
“What they’re doing is saying their personal wishes outweigh the need to protect our health-care system,” said Kenney.
Alberta reported 355 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, for a total of 7,387 active cases. There were 556 people in hospital, 102 of whom are in intensive care. There have been 1,649 deaths linked to the virus.