Two Prince Edward Island churches differ on how beneficial the increased limit for public gatherings truly is.
In-person church services on the Island started up at the end of June when P.E.I. entered phase four of its ease-back plan following the COVID-19 shutdown.
Grace Baptist Church has been holding two services, one at 9 a.m. and another at 11 a.m., of up to 50 people on Sundays for the last two months to accommodate previous public health rules around public gatherings.
Until this week, public health restrictions allowed up to 100 people to gather in separate groups. During a news briefing Tuesday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison increased that limit to three cohorts of 50 people, meaning 150 in total are allowed to gather for public events.
Jeff Eastwood, a pastor at Grace Baptist Church, said the normal congregation is about 300 people and the news that up to 150 from their community will be allowed to come together at once couldn't be more welcome.
"We could potentially have more people together and certainly maybe even go back to that single service, so that there isn't sort of that sense of division," he said.
"We really were built for community. And so I think that's what people are missing. And that's what they're enjoying when they come back, even in this different format."
The higher numbers are subject to the government approving an operational plan that ensures physical distancing. The three cohorts must be kept separate from each other by 3.5 metres in the same building, with their own washrooms and exits.
Eastwood said the church has purchased barriers to keep the cohorts separate. He also said the church designates certain entry and exits points to each cohort and has staggered arrival times to avoid crowding.
"We would have individuals actually book their tickets, according to the section that they'd be sitting in, so they would know what entrance to use and what exit to use," he said.
The church has been running its Sunday school online throughout the pandemic. Eastwood said the increased limit also means in-person Sunday school might be able to return to the church.
"I know a number of pastors have been talking about Sunday school and children's ministry, what that looks like," he said.
"So there's a number of benefits that kind of come together with a larger group."
Eastwood said the church still needs to submit its operational plan for the larger service, which will be given to health officials for approval.
The target date to allow services with up to 150 people is Sunday, Sept. 13, for Grace Baptist Church.
'Not too helpful'
Charlottetown Bishop Richard Grecco of St. Dunstan's Basilica Parish, meanwhile, does not think the expansion will improve services at Catholic churches on the Island due to the mandatory 12 feet of space between each cohort.
"I'm sorry to say in talking to my priests... it's not going to make much difference at all," he said.
"Logistically, for example, in the cathedral we can't do it even though the cathedral holds 1,100 people right now.
"We can only manage … two cohorts of 50 because of the pew arrangement and the aisles." Grecco added.
He said three sections of 50 people separated by 12 feet each is a lot of space.
Grecco wishes the Chief Public Health Office had contacted him or other church representatives before making the decision to expand the number of cohorts.
"It's a grand gesture but I think it's not too helpful for churches," he said.
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