Alberta places of worship have received an automatic exemption for wearing masks indoors during religious services.
The new public health restrictions implemented on Sept. 4 outlined a provincewide mask mandate on most indoor public spaces.
Exemptions apply to farming and ranching operations, fitness facilities and places of worship.
That comes as a disappointment to some Calgary churches.
“Part of me wasn’t surprised when I went and looked online on the website and found the exemption, and part of me is disappointed that churches — talking for Christian churches here — but that we would need it,” said pastor John Van Sloten with Marda Loop Church.
“I don’t understand why we as a church wouldn’t want to love others by wearing a mask. I mean, how small a thing.”
An emailed statement from Alberta Health read: “Chief medical officer of health orders for indoor public masking have always included exceptions. The list of exceptions has varied over time as our understanding of COVID-19 has evolved.”
“There are also general exceptions in the order to facilitate activities that would be impractical or impossible to do while masked,” it said.
“Some examples include: consuming food or drink while seated, taking communion, establishing identity, medical emergencies or receiving care or assistance when a mask cannot be worn.”
When asked for clarification on why churches were automatically given an exemption, Alberta Health said: “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve recognized the importance of faith communities to the quality of life and well-being of their members.”
“We continue to work with churches, schools, employers and other organizations to balance overall community safety with the need to minimize the impact of restrictions on the lives of individuals and communities,” Alberta Health said.
Restrictions on religious gatherings have caused protests across the province.
Throughout the pandemic, a number of churches in Alberta held multiple services while gatherings weren’t allowed, with some pastors arrested and charged for defying orders.
Legal battles are ongoing.
Rev. Dr. Greg Glatz with Knox United Church says the exemption appears to play to that controversy.
“The exemption for faith communities not to have to wear masks is ridiculous. It seems like it’s pandering to a political or religious base. It’s not based on science, and it will only increase the occurrences of COVID-19,” he said.
Pastor Van Sloten has implemented a mandatory vaccine policy at his church, saying it’s a small action to protect all of his parishioners.
“It is disappointing that the exemption is needed, and probably that it will be taken up by some faith communities. I really do believe the Christian thing to do is, I mean, wear a little mask over your face,” he said.
“You can still sing. We can still do all the other things we’re doing as a community. Nobody said we can’t do that. Why not wear a mask for the sake of those who need us to?”
Alberta Health added masking is still strongly encouraged, even in places with an exemption.