British Columbia’s religious communities are being given a temporary exemption to a ban on indoor gatherings to celebrate their upcoming holidays.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a variance to her ban on in-person religious services that will allow faiths to choose four days over the period of March 28 to May 13 to hold indoor events.
“It is a trial period, if you will,” Henry said.
“This represents a first step in the gradual reopening of indoor faith and spiritual group gatherings. It builds on our recent indoor variance, which permits outdoor religious services for up to 50 people with specific conditions, and we are hopeful that this one-time indoor variance can be extended soon.”
Under the variance, gatherings will be limited to a maximum of 50 people or 10 per cent of available space — whichever is less.
The period was selected in order to overlap with a variety of major religious holidays, including Vaisakhi, Passover, Ramadan and Easter.
Henry said the plan was developed after intensive consultation with B.C. religious leaders, who she said were understanding of the need to limit transmission and protect the vulnerable.
The province will take the lessons learned over the course of the variance and use them as groundwork for future easing of restrictions, Henry added.
She also warned that the exemption could be modified or revoked if the COVID-19 situation deteriorates.
“We take no pleasure, of course, in limiting any of the religious community’s practices, and we want this to be a success and we want to make sure we are protecting the most vulnerable among us,” she said.
“If conditions require us to revisit this, we will do so in consultation, again.”
On Wednesday, the province announced that it would permit outdoor in-person religious gatherings, also with a limit of 50 attendees.
Organizers of any permitted in-person gathering will be required to have a COVID-19 safety plan in place and ensure participants comply with the rules.
The ban on religious gatherings has been one of the most contentious pandemic restrictions in B.C. since it was implemented in November.
Earlier this month, the B.C. Supreme Court upheld the ban, ruling that it did infringe constitutionally protected rights, but that the infringement was reasonable and proportionate.
Editor’s note: A previous version of the story stated the variance was from March 28 to April 13. In fact, it is from March 28 to May 13.