Churches remain cautious on COVID-19 reopening

Reverend Bob Fillier has faith he will eventually get back to delivering his sermons to a live audience again, but now is not the time for that.

Not until he’s sure it’s safe for everyone to be there in person to learn biblical lessons and sing hymns in church.

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The pandemic and its potentially deadly effects worry some of Fillier’s parishioners at Trinity United Church and the treat of the virus has forced a temporary ban on singing in enclosed public places. Canada has learned from other countries where coronavirus clusters developed as a result of droplets spread from the mouths of singers, so singing in church is a no-no.

“There’s pretty much an accepted ruling for now that singing is just not part of what you can do and that really changes what we do on a Sunday morning, let me tell you,” said Fillier, who for the past two months has been using teleconferencing links to form virtual congregations.

Since March 16, B.C.’s COVID-19 restrictions have banned mass gatherings and limited the number of people allowed to congregate in one area to no more than 50. After two months of encouraging personal hygiene and physical distancing measures to discourage face-to-face contact, the province has slowed the rate of transmission and on Tuesday it rolled out Phase 2 of the Restart Plan.

Although the 50-person crowd size restriction remained unchanged, some churches have begun to allow parishioners back in the building. But that won’t be happening any time soon under Fillier’s watch as lead minister at Trinity United’s two Fifth Avenue places of worship.

“We’re not taking any changes yet, we’re kind of looking to see how things unfold in the next month or so, before we make any definitive decisions,” said Fillier.

“We’re sticking to the advice of Bonnie Henry, which is not, 50 is good. It’s 50 if you absolutely need to, and you still have to follow all the COVID guidelines. If you space everybody out two metres apart, that limit might not actually be 50, it might be 15 or 25.”

March 15 was the last day of live services at Trinity United. During the pandemic, most of Fillier’s regular church-goers have since tuned in to livestreaming sermons, which have been ongoing for three years and average 500 connections around the world. Fillier says it’s only a small group who don’t go to their screens on Sunday mornings, either because they lack the necessary technology or a familiarity with computers.

To open, even for small gatherings, the church would be required to have spacing and sanitizing protocols in place and he said everyone sitting in the pews would likely have to wear a mask. The church would be required to record attendance at each service to ensure accurate contact tracing in the event someone gets sick with the virus. Fillier figures that next step won’t happen until June, and only then to no more than 10 people at a time, those who have not been able to join church services online.

 

“Like any church, we have a cross-section that definitely fits that high-risk category,” said Fillier. “So how do meet their needs, make sure we’re safe and still say to them, you might be welcome to come but you have to be willing to do all these things until we can say with a higher degree of certainty that you’ll be OK.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Prince George will open its four local churches (St. Mary’s, Immaculate Conception, Christ Our Saviour and Sacred Heart Cathedral) this weekend, limiting crowd sizes to no more than 50.

The churches have planning for the opening for weeks and church volunteers are well-versed in sanitizing and spacing protocols. Daily noon-hour masses resumed on Tuesday. To keep limit crowd sizes to no more than 50, the churches are using the Eventbrite app to send out invitations for parishioners to book their tickets ahead of time. Pews have been marked to keep people separated and ablock of seats will be saved for each service for people who do not book their tickets electronically. If people arrive after the church has reached its 50-person capacity they will have to wait for a later mass.

“We want to accommodate as many people as we can, mindful of the current restrictions,” said Sacred Heart priest Rectorino Tolentino. “We’re adding mass times, so the two masses on Sunday will become four (8:30, 10 and 11:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m.) and the one mass on Saturday will become two masses (5 and 6:30 p.m.), so those that want to come can come.”

After each mass, high-contact surfaces in the church will be disinfected. All church visitors will have to sanitize their hands before they enter the church and will then be ushered to their seats. Sacred Heart will continue to livestream its masses.

“That means they don’t need to come if they are not feeling well,” said Tolentino.

Ajmer Singh, president of the Guru Gobind Singh Temple Association, says the temple closed to mass worship on March 31 and there are no plans to reopen until September. However, the temple will allow small groups or individuals to visit from 6 a.m.-8 p.m.

“The temple is open but not for large gatherings,” said Singh. “We are allowing 15-20 people only, to maintain social distancing.”

In the city’s Muslim community, livestreaming continues to be the means of communication for the Prince George Islamic Centre, which is currently closed.

The 400-member centre is bound be the decisions of the Muslim Association of Canada Centre in Vancouver and chair Mustafa Mohamed is waiting until the province gives the go-ahead to increase church attendance.

“We are trying our best not to create difficulty because it’s very difficult to select 50 people at a time,” Mohamed said. “It’s lots of hassle and what if one person is sick? So we are waiting until it is actually safe to accommodate say 250 or more. Then we could open our centre with no difficulty.”

Today marks the end of Ramadan, a month-long fast based on the lunar cycle in which Muslims abstain from eating and drinking each day from sunrise to sunset. A meal breaks the fast tonight at sunset and begins Eid al-Fitr, a three-day celebration which is one of the biggest annual holy festivals. The pandemic is limiting those celebrations to small groups or families.

“We are hoping it will be more relaxed in a week or two weeks,” said Mohamed.

“We are using technology to somehow minimize the effect of COVID-19. Instead of praying Friday at the centre, which is equivalent to a Sunday ceremony, we use the Zoom application to get people to sign in and the community can listen to alive speaker delivering a speech for a half-hour of so, then they will pray at home.”

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