There are few COVID-19 public health measures in place across Canada for this weekend’s Easter and Passover celebrations for the first time since the spring of 2020.
But some religious leaders say there will still be safety precautions for gatherings as much of the country appears to be in a sixth wave of the pandemic.
Passover starts Friday and runs until April 23. Easter is this Sunday.
In Ottawa, the Kehillat Beth Israel Congregation is planning to hold a community seder, a Jewish meal to start Passover.
“People will still be asked to be masked when they are not eating. There will be some distancing and cohorting in the seating,” said Rabbi Eytan Kenter. “It’s still not exactly like the before times.
“We are excited to be able to offer something that is meaningfully resembling the traditions we remember.”
Catholic churches in Edmonton are planning in-person masses for Easter but are trying to keep those who gather safe.
“We’ve asked our parishes to work with many of their different committees – their parish councils, their liturgy committees – in planning … over the next number of days, first of all, just for the safety of parishioners,” Rev. Paul Kavanagh, the vicar for priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, said Wednesday.
“There’s probably some things that we often do that will look a little bit different this year.”
Ramadan also started earlier this month and goes until May.
Health experts say people who gather in mosques, churches, synagogues or homes can take precautions to lower their COVID-19 risk.
“We know that all of these holidays … tend to promote more gatherings,” said Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious diseases physician and professor at the University of Alberta.
“Any time we have situations where we have more people interacting with each other in close proximity, there is a higher chance of transmission, so it may accelerate what has already started.”
Smith said Alberta, like many provinces, appears to be entering another wave of infections.
“Unfortunately the pandemic is not quite over yet,” she said. “There’s a lot of COVID circulating in the community, so you really need to look at what your risk is and ensure we are protecting the most vulnerable.”
Smith said the same rules apply this weekend as they have throughout the pandemic.
“If you are gathering with people who are fully vaccinated _ and it’s a small number and you can be outside or have the windows open _ maybe that’s OK,” she said. “For those who are at high risk for severe disease, I would caution against having large groups in closed settings.”
Smith said it’s a good idea to stay home if feeling ill and to wear a mask at religious services.
“I feel like a lot of this is falling on deaf ears. It’s worrying because I think there is a huge amount of COVID transmitting in the community,” she said. “Hospitalizations tend to be a lagging indicator, but we certainly have seen a fairly significant jump … in the last week to 10 days.”
A similar message came this week from Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, who noted every part of the country is facing an increase in cases.
“Many of the religious observations over the weekend, in any religion, (are) promoting compassion and protection of each other and community,” she said.
“As part of that, please go get up to date on your vaccinations and wear a mask anywhere you are going into an enclosed environment with people who aren’t in your household.”
Rev. Kavanagh said there are still online options for Easter services and many who have been attending church in person are wearing masks. Some churches have set aside space for those who want to physically distance from others, he added.
“We’ve certainly wanted people to have that level of comfort to do that.”
Kavanagh said he’s heard about different plans for family dinners and other gatherings.
“This may be the first Easter, maybe even one of the first major holidays, where people can come together again – even families,” he said.
“People are looking for that opportunity to gather together and do it safely for them and their family members.”
Rabbi Kenter said there are about 60 people registered for the community seder in Ottawa.
“At the same time, there’s the acknowledgment that every day someone is saying, ‘Well, I was going to come but now I can’t come because I have COVID or someone I know has COVID,’” he said.
“It does temper the enthusiasm with the reminder of the reality that we’re still dealing with.”