British Columbia

B.C. faith leaders urged to limit physical contact, host smaller congregations

No sweeping bans of large gatherings, but province discourages events with 1,000 people or more.

No sweeping bans of large gatherings, but province discourages events with 1,000 people or more

Premier John Horgan holds a townhall via teleconference with B.C. faith leaders province-wide regarding COVID-19 preparations. (Mike McArthur / CBC News)

The B.C. government is urging faith leaders to limit the size of congregations to less than 1,000 people and limit physical contact as much as possible amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in B.C.

Premier John Horgan held a townhall with faith leaders across the province to discuss COVID-19 preparedness plans. The province avoided imposing any sweeping bans on gatherings, instead choosing to leave those decisions up to faith leaders — for now.

"The situation is grave in many parts of the world," said Horgan while on a call with more than 100 leaders across the province.

The premier said large events, like the Vancouver Prayer Breakfast that had well over 1,000 guests, "may well not be the most appropriate way for people to share fellowship and discuss personal and faith issues at this time."

As of Wednesday, 46 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in B.C., including one death.

Malkiat Singh Dhami, right, says his temple will have to make some difficult decisions when it comes to hosting weddings planned in the coming months. (CBC)

Leaders to make decisions

Faith leaders on the other end of the conference call told CBC News that it's up to them to decide whether or not they will continue holding regular congregations, although the province underscored that large gatherings should be avoided.

Malkiat Singh Dhami, president of the Khalsa Diwan Society Vancouver, said he wasn't entirely satisfied by the message delivered by the premier.

"I was expecting more clear directions from the province," he told CBC News, noting that he's unsure how his temple with deal with weddings planned in the coming months.

"What will we do? We'll be vigilant and watch how the situation is developing, and we'll make our decision accordingly, too," he said.

Dhami said there's another big question mark surrounding Vancouver's Vaisakhi Street Festival, which is currently scheduled for April 18. Organizers are expecting upwards of 100,000 attendees, but aren't ruling out cancelling the event.

"Everybody's worried what to do, how to contain the virus, how to safeguard the public," he said. "We're not making a decision either way yet."

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the decision to cancel the festival would become clearer in the coming weeks.

"I do know that [city] staff have spoken to organizers about the event and that our job is to try to provide them with the best information possible," he said. "If we see an upcoming issue, [we'll] to flag it to health authorities and they have the final call."

Premier John Horgan, centre, Minister of health Adrian Dix, right, and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provide an update on B.C.'s response plan for novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Vancouver on Friday, March 6, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Limit physical contact

At a press conference on Wednesday, provincial health officer Bonnie Henry acknowledged that the current crises is weighing on many British Columbians.

"This is an unusual time, this is a time when congregants are looking to their leaders to help them through this, and they need to find ways to make space within their communities," she said.

The province is urging faith leaders to "get creative" in how they offer emotional and spiritual support to members — without physical contact.

"The advice was ... to recognize the vitally important place of human contact without physical touch," said Jade Holownia, pastor of Multi-Site at Tenth Church in Vancouver.

Holownia says that means everything from virtual meetings with members, and finding alternatives to hugs, handshakes and high fives that are commonplace within the parish.

While he wasn't sure exactly how leaders would substitute those physical gestures, he was confident they would find a way.

"This is our time to step up," he added.

With files from Tanya Fletcher and Lien Yeung