Some churches frustrated they can't relax gathering rules by requiring vaccination

·3 min read
Worship services aren't included under P.E.I.'s Vax Pass program, as the province deems them to be essential. Some churches have voluntarily made vaccination mandatory, or are considering it, and want gathering rules relaxed.  (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)
Worship services aren't included under P.E.I.'s Vax Pass program, as the province deems them to be essential. Some churches have voluntarily made vaccination mandatory, or are considering it, and want gathering rules relaxed. (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)

Some Island churches say they're frustrated with P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Office, which has told them they can't relax their gathering limits if they require vaccination.

Rev. Robert McCarthy, the minister at Kensington United Church, said he expected bringing in a Vax Pass would allow his church to drop physical distancing between households and capacity rules, just as restaurants, theatres and other events have been able to do.

He was surprised when the public health office told him those rules wouldn't change.

"If it's OK for the Harbourfront Theatre, and OK for the Cineplex Theatre, why can't it be OK for Kensington United Church?" McCarthy said.

"I feel that we're put in a corner and left behind as the rest of the province is moving forward, as businesses are more and more able to move toward business the way it was before the pandemic."

Vax Pass for churches 'not recommended': CPHO

The public health office recently sent an email to faith organizations laying out its Vax Pass rules after receiving "inquiries from some faith groups," including Kensington United Church and Spring Park United Church, which just made vaccination mandatory.

In the email, CPHO told faith organizations it "recommends not implementing proof of vaccination requirements."

Dr. Heather Morrison, the province's Chief Public Health Officer, says worship services weren't included in P.E.I.'s Vax Pass program because the province considers them essential.

In an interview with CBC, Morrison suggested the province doesn't want to encourage churches to voluntarily make vaccinations mandatory, which may exclude unvaccinated Islanders from an essential activity.

"For instance, if a grocery store decided to implement a Vax Pass, we would not want that to happen because people need to be able to go in and get groceries and that's very important," said Morrison.

"So I think it's important to maintain that there are certain areas that should be, from our perspective, not discretionary events."

Steve Bruce/CBC
Steve Bruce/CBC

McCarthy argues that by not allowing his church to relax its rules under mandatory vaccination, the province is actually excluding more people.

He said "very few" members of Kensington United Church are unvaccinated and wouldn't be able to attend services.

But physical distancing rules mean just 70 people can attend his church services. He said services this time of year would normally be far larger than that.

"So we're going to be turning away folks as we move forward. We might be excluding a few folks that are unvaxxed, but I think we're excluding more vaxxed folks, as we speak now," said McCarthy.

"I never thought I'd be telling people to not come to church, to not be part of the community. And it's the rules [that are] forcing us to make tough decisions."

Church gatherings riskier?

Morrison also pointed out that in some other provinces "there's been considerable outbreaks related to faith-based gatherings," which is another reason the public health officer won't drop physical distancing requirements, even for those requiring vaccination.

McCarthy said it still hasn't been made clear how the public health risks are greater at a church than a theatre, if both have vaccination requirements.

He's reached out to Kensington's MLA to share his concerns. He's also spoken to staff with some other churches about how to best make their case together.

"So we're continuing to ... make some noise and hopefully join together with other churches feeling the same way, that where the rules stand today, they're hurting us and not helping us."

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