GraceLife Church’s parking lot was full Sunday morning, as Pastor James Coates returned for the first Sunday service since he was released from the Edmonton Remand Centre.
A Global News crew saw Coates entering the church around 9 a.m. Sunday, stopping to hug and shake hands with congregants as they entered the church, the vast majority without masks.
RCMP arrived on site around 10:45 a.m. Officers spoke with members of the church outside before leaving GraceLife property. One cruiser parked just outside the church grounds and remained there during the service.
The Parkland County church, located west of city limits on Highway 627, has held packed Sunday services for months. RCMP and Alberta Health Services inspectors typically appear each week to ensure public health measures are in effect and in previous weeks officers have stated “the church did not comply with the restrictions.”
Albertans have expressed frustration on social media and beyond over the church’s continued rule flouting.
“It’s a letdown,” said Ryan Martinello, an Edmonton resident who is frustrated with the way the situation has been handled.
“There’s not much discipline and they are just going to do it again and again.”
On Sunday AHS environmental public health inspectors again visited GraceLife Church.
An AHS spokesperson said the inspectors were denied entry to the church, but noted — as they often do — what “appeared to be breaches of the current CMOH restrictions related to capacity, physical distancing and masking.”
The spokesperson said AHS is “hopeful of scheduling a meeting with the pastor this week (and prior to next Sunday) to discuss these breaches as well as public health risks related to COVID-19.”
“It’s just a slap on the wrist (for GraceLife Church) and it’s just minor, right?” Martinello said.
Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw was asked Monday if a lack of action on the file may embolden others to not follow public health orders.
“I think it’s important to note there have been repercussions for this particular church,” Hinshaw said. “In government, we set the policy and law enforcement actions really are dealt with by the agencies that have the ability to do so.”
Coates was charged and granted bail if he agreed to stop holding over-capacity services. He refused and was locked up for breaching and undertaking.
On Monday, he pleaded guilty to that breach. Provincial court Judge Jeffrey Champion agreed to drop all but one charge against Coates. The pastor is to go to trial in May on a count under Alberta’s Public Health Act for holding services that allegedly broke a restriction on the size of gatherings.
GraceLife Church itself has been charged with violating health measures.
Provincial regulations restrict in-person attendance at churches to 15 per cent capacity and call for congregants to physically distance and wear masks.
“What it comes down to, in my opinion, is the government. Something’s got to be done,” Martinello said.
“There’s a flaw. I’ve noticed it and I think other people have too.”
With files from The Canadian Press