British Columbia

B.C. temporarily allowing limited indoor services for upcoming religious holidays

The province will allow a limited number of indoor religious services during the next six weeks as part of a one-time variance to accommodate upcoming religious holidays, the provincial health officer said Thursday.

Faith leaders can choose 4 days within 6-week time frame to hold services

A limited number of indoor church services will be permitted in B.C. over a six-week period this spring, according to the province. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

British Columbia will allow a limited number of indoor religious services during the next six weeks as part of a one-time variance to accommodate upcoming religious holidays, the provincial health officer said Thursday.

Indoor religious gatherings will be permitted between March 28 and May 13. Currently, religious services are only allowed to happen outdoors.

Faith leaders can choose four days within the six-week time frame to hold services. Attendance will be limited to 50 people or 10 per cent capacity, whichever is less.

There will be no time limit on services, and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says she is working with faith leaders on the details.

The decision was made in consultation with a "diverse spectrum" of spiritual and faith communities in B.C., Henry said.

"This represents a first step in the gradual reopening of indoor faith and spiritual group gatherings in British Columbia," she said.

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Dr. Bonnie Henry says this is one of the questions she is asked most often.

She said the time frame was chosen in consideration of several upcoming holidays across faith communities, including Easter, Passover, Ramadan and Vaisakhi.

Haroon Khan, trustee of Vancouver's Al-Jamia Al-Masjid, said the new restrictions were still problematic with Ramadan beginning in April and lasting for 30 days. He said he would be discussing the issue with government officials. 

"To be restricted to only being able to do it for four days in that period is grossly unfair," said Khan. "It doesn't make sense."

But Rabbi Dan Moscavitz at Temple Shalom said it's a good first step.

"In the broader Jewish community, in the more traditional Jewish community where they can't use technology on the Sabbath, this is really a necessary and an incredibly helpful new protocol that our community will be following," he said.

Henry said she is hopeful this one-time variance can be extended, but that depends on epidemiological data in B.C. in the coming weeks.

"Time will tell," she said. "If conditions require us to revisit this, we will do so in consultation again."

'Waiting and wondering'

Active cases of COVID-19 are at their highest level in B.C. since Jan. 9, at roughly 5,570 as of Wednesday.

Henry, along with Health Minister Adrian Dix, announced earlier this week that a public health order banning gatherings and events has been amended to allow outdoor religious gatherings, as long as COVID-19 safety plans are in place. 

Rev. Anne Privett, a priest at St. Andrew's Anglican Church in Kelowna, says she is preparing to add in-person outdoor components to her services for the Easter weekend.

"We were waiting and wondering if something might change in time for Easter," Privett told Chris Walker, host of CBC's Daybreak South.

"It was a relief to receive the notice of the variance, even just so we can at least know the lay of the land for the future and plan accordingly."

Online services will still be offered, because some church members, including those who are elderly, feel most comfortable staying apart for the time being, she added.

The church is in the middle of a construction zone, Privett said, but a cemetery behind the church will be used for outdoor service.

On Thursday, Henry said faith leaders and health officials share a common goal of keeping people safe.

She said she takes no pleasure in limiting a religious community's practices. She is asking those who attend services to abide by health regulations and co-operate with religious leaders. 

"We want this to be a success," Henry said.

"I have respect and faith and trust in our faith communities that we will continue to work together to make sure that we can do this safely in the coming months."

Tap the link below to hear Rev. Anne Privett's interview on Daybreak South:

with files from Meera Bains and Daybreak South