'A huge step up': Congregants rejoice as P.E.I. church reopens to the public
'We look forward to the day when everybody can be here'
It has been months since public services have been held at Grace Baptist Church in Charlottetown.
The church, like many others on the Island, has not hosted public gatherings since mid-March because of COVID-19.
P.E.I. entered the fourth phase of eased restrictions on Friday, allowing religious institutions to expand the number of people allowed to attend services to 50. That is contingent on physical distancing being maintained.
Up to 15 people were allowed to gather in the previous phase, but many churches remained shut until more people could enter.
One of them was Grace Baptist. Members of the church are happy to gather again in person on Sundays.
"It's wonderful to be back here," said Donna MacDougall, who has been attending services at the church for 30 years. "I love my church family and we just love each other here."
MacDougall said the church live streams services on Sundays. While the building was shut down to the public, she watched every Sunday with her Bible in hand.
Though members of the church are happy to be back, they notice some differences. Typically, there are chairs lined from the front of the stage to the back wall.
Now, sections of chairs are lined up in small groups and spaced out about four metres from each other so people can sing without the fear of spreading the virus through droplets.
Roberta Wood has been attending the church for two years since moving to the Island from New Brunswick. She said it was strange at first to come back.
"This is really an unorthodox way to have church with everyone so separated and in different sections in the building," she said. "But once everything started it felt normal, and especially with singing.
"Everyone was participating and singing together and singing from their heart."
Jeff Eastwood, a minister and elder at the church, said two services are being offered on Sundays, one at 9 a.m. and another at 11 a.m. People who want to attend have to register online.
"We kind of divided the foyer to funnel people in one way [and] exit another so that the two groups of people coming to the two services wouldn't meet," he said, adding surfaces that are touched frequently get cleaned between services.
Hand sanitizer has been placed around the church and masks are available for anyone to anyone who wants one.
Eastwood said he is happy no longer to be preaching to an empty room and in front of a camera as people watched at home.
He said there were 37 people at the first session Sunday and the second reached the 50-person limit.
"If I compare it to what it was before — so preaching to just the camera — this was a huge step up," he said.
However, when he compares it to what it was like to preach before COVID-19, it isn't the same.
"But we understand the circumstances. We want to work within the guidelines, but we look forward to the day when everybody can be here."
He said there would be about 225 people at most services before the pandemic hit.
Other churches are doing things differently.
St. Dunstan's Basilica in Charlottetown began holding weekday masses of up to 15 people. However, the church will not be expanding services to 50 people until July 4.