A church in Parkland County held another service Sunday, defying a closure order imposed last month for COVID-19 health infractions.
Unlike many places that Albertans gather, under the current restrictions churches have been allowed to remain open at 15 per cent capacity, as long as distancing and masking rules are followed.
Alberta Health Services first sanctioned GraceLife Church and put an order in place requiring it to follow public health rules in mid-December.
At the time, Pastor James Coates was issued a $1,200 ticket for contravening orders of Alberta's chief medical officer of health, after inspectors observed that the church was far exceeding capacity limits, that staff, volunteers and congregants were going unmasked and were not social distancing.
On Jan. 21, a Court of Queen's Bench judge issued a ruling finding that the Dec. 17 order was enforceable.
On Jan. 29, AHS ordered the church to close — but, two days later, 300 people attended a service there. AHS said it was contemplating further legal action. The church held another service on Sunday.
'Unacceptable public health risks'
AHS and RCMP attended Sunday, and Alberta RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Laurel Scott said capacity appeared to have been exceeded once again. She said officers attended to observe in collaboration with AHS, but she wouldn't say if officers issued any further tickets or if any other type of enforcement action had been taken.
"I have no information about enforcement today, but I anticipate that tomorrow Parkland [RCMP] will provide official information about any enforcement taken," she said.
She said there's a reason for not sharing details about enforcement Sunday, but wouldn't say what it is.
Alberta Health Services also wouldn't provide information about enforcement, and declined to answer questions beyond a brief emailed statement.
"GraceLife Church continues to create unacceptable public health risks by violating the Public Health Act, Chief Medical Officer of Health Order, Public Health Inspector Order, and a Court of Queen's Bench Order. AHS continues to work within the legislation and cooperatively with the RCMP," said spokesperson Angela Unsworth in an email Sunday.
Unsworth said the church is required to pay the fines already issued against it, and that it may be subjected to additional penalties imposed by law enforcement or the courts if it continues to defy the health rules.
Church posts public statement
As he began his sermon Sunday, Coates said it was a "highlight" to have the RCMP present at the church, and asked his congregation to give them a standing ovation. The service was live streamed.
Coates told congregants that media outlets were present outside, and that the church had opted to post a lengthy statement on its website to explain their actions.
"You can expect that the next few days are going to be chaotic from a media perspective. We have given them lots to chew on."
The statement argues COVID-19 is not a pandemic, states that the number of people who have died because of the virus is not significant, and makes unfounded claims about the virus, how it spreads and the measures used to reduce transmission. The church argues that Premier Jason Kenney repeatedly erroneously calling COVID-19 an "influenza" last May supports their assessment that it's not that serious.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1,709 Albertans have died from the disease. The virus has strained Alberta's health-care system — doctors and other health-care workers have repeatedly spoken out about being overwhelmed, particularly in December as they tried to keep up with a surge in cases.
In its statement, GraceLife said it initially followed the public health guidelines, but has come to view the measures as a way to "fundamentally alter society and strip us all of our civil liberties."
"We do not see our actions as perpetuating the longevity of COVID-19 or any other virus that will inevitably come along," the statement reads. "If anything, we see our actions as contributing to its end — the end of destructive lockdowns and the end of the attempt to institutionalize the debilitating fear of viral infections."
After livestreaming the service, the church made the full video private, leaving an abridged version posted online.
Emails to Coates and the GraceLife office requesting an interview went unanswered.