N.L. vaccine passports mandatory by Oct. 22, but churches can choose masking option

Click to play video: 'Planes, trains and federal workers: PM announces new COVID-19 vaccine mandates'
Planes, trains and federal workers: PM announces new COVID-19 vaccine mandates
The federal government says all federal public servants will require proof of COVID-19 vaccination by the end of October, or risk being put on leave without pay. Ottawa also announced that Canadians over the age of 12 must have both shots to board trains or planes, with few exceptions. Abigail Bimman explains the details, and the reaction to the new rules. – Oct 6, 2021

Newfoundland and Labrador introduced its vaccine passport system Thursday, but the government decided to make an exception for faith communities despite a recent cluster of cases tied to a Pentecostal church.

The new mobile app NLVaxPass will be available for download as of Friday morning, though businesses and other organizations covered by the passport will have until Oct. 22 before the system is enforced.

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People aged 12 and up will have to provide proof of vaccination before they can enter places such as bars, restaurants, gyms and nursing homes – places the province considers “non-essential.”

Earlier this week, it appeared the provincial government was considering adding more measures to reduce outbreaks at faith gatherings. Premier Andrew Furey had a phone call with provincial religious leaders Tuesday, during which he discussed the importance of the COVID-19 vaccines and vaccination passports.

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This came amid reports of growing community spread of the novel coronavirus in central Newfoundland – a region sometimes referred to as the province’s Bible Belt.

On Wednesday, The Canadian Press reported that a couple who attended the First United Pentecostal Church in Bishop’s Falls, N.L., were gravely ill as a result of the virus, while public health officials noted there were 56 active cases in central Newfoundland. The church pastor said he was fully vaccinated, adding that he hadn’t told congregants whether they should or shouldn’t get the vaccine.

However, during Thursday’s announcement, the province stopped short of the mandatory vaccine passport for faith gatherings. Instead, the government said it would permit faith groups to either implement the passports or cap in-person services at 50 per cent capacity, with all attending – including ministers and musicians – masked, bubbled and socially distanced, and with singing restricted to the choir.

The new measures are similar to those in New Brunswick, which has also seen outbreaks linked to a Pentecostal church community. According to a spokeswoman for the Progressive Conservative government in New Brunswick, all faith venues must now require vaccination passports or limit their services to 50 per cent capacity, enforce masking and “eliminate singing from services.”

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In Newfoundland and Labrador, there are varying levels of restriction for religious services. In the Baie Verte Peninsula, Boyd’s Cove, New World Island and North-South Twillingate areas, gatherings are limited to 20 people with physical distancing. The remainder of the province allows gatherings of up to 500 people with physical distancing.

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Rev. Fred Penney, the pastor at the Elim Pentecostal Tabernacle in St. John’s, said in an interview Thursday he was leaning toward the vaccine passport option, though he said he would discuss the matter with church leadership. He said it’s possible that a passport policy might make people feel safer and attend church.

He said the option of masking and social distancing would mean he has to wear a mask while giving a sermon and congregants wouldn’t be able to sing – both significant setbacks for his church if implemented.

“I’m disappointed in this development, but I’m trying to be understanding of the government’s position wanting to protect the population against a highly transmittable Delta variant,” he said. “As a Christian, we believe part of being a good Christian is loving our neighbour, and that includes being attentive to our neighbour’s safety.”

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The pastor said he believes that churches shouldn’t be lumped in with gyms, restaurants and other “non-essential services,” and that a universal, mandatory vaccine passport policy would have failed to recognize the special role of faith communities in society.

“Should someone arrive at our church unannounced and in need of spiritual care and pastoral care, we would meet with them one-on-one. We wouldn’t turn them away,” he said.

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The province also announced Thursday that youth aged 12 to 18 are exempt from the passport requirement when they are participating in sports events at arenas and during indoor and outdoor practices.

Health officials reported seven new confirmed cases of COVID-19. The province has 118 active reported cases and 16 people in hospital with the disease, including seven in intensive care.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2021.

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