N.S. pastor who held event linked to deadly COVID outbreak fined for breaking rules

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HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's premier said Wednesday he was disgusted by comments from a pastor who held a religious gathering allegedly in violation of COVID-19 rules and that was linked to a deadly outbreak at a long-term care home.

The outbreak was preventable and the religious event organized by Robert Smith, pastor of the Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, N.S., showed a "complete disregard" for public health measures, Tim Houston told reporters. He expressed anger at comments made by Smith in a recording from a church sermon last Sunday.

"The comments downplaying the seriousness of what's happening, the comments minimizing the loss of life are completely unacceptable and totally disgusting — lives were lost," Houston said.

Video of Smith's sermon, which had been posted to Facebook, has been taken down. In the recording, Smith described what happened at the religious event, called the Border Town Camp Meeting and held in Amherst Oct. 25-29, as "unfortunate."

"People are trying to shame us," he said in the video. "But I will never be ashamed of what I do for Christ. Is the thing unfortunate? Yes, but I'm not ashamed because I did what I'm 110 per cent sure Christ wanted me to do."

The provincial government issued a news release Wednesday stating Smith had been fined $2,422 for violating COVID-19 rules during the event last month. Officials said the gathering was attended by many people who were not vaccinated and was responsible for secondary transmission in the northern and western health zones, in workplaces and at the East Cumberland Lodge care home in Pugwash, N.S.

A total of 31 residents and 10 staff members at the home have tested positive for COVID-19, and two residents in their 80s have died. The province has said the October gathering was also linked to the death of a woman in her 60s at a group home in Amherst.

On Wednesday, health officials reported 20 new cases of COVID-19 across the province and said no new infections had been identified at the long-term care home.

Brandon Lake, pastor of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Bridgetown, N.S., said in an interview Tuesday that he and about 20 members of his congregation attended the October event organized by the Amherst church. It was attended by "less than 100 people," Lake said, adding that organizers believed they were following the government's COVID-19 guidelines.

He said it was "unclear" at the time whether participants at faith gatherings were required to show proof of vaccination. The province's health authorities, meanwhile, have said the event's organizers did not require attendees to show vaccination proof.

Nova Scotia's current COVID-19 health orders include a requirement for proof of vaccination for indoor and outdoor festivals and for events involving arts and culture. Proof of vaccination is not required for regular religious services.

Lake said the outbreak linked to the gathering was an "unfortunate thing that happened," adding that the number of people who attended was smaller than the number of attendees for regular Sunday church services across the province.

"It certainly sobered me, because we've been relatively untouched by (COVID-19) here in this area, and it sobers me as to how quickly it can spread," he said.

Both Houston and chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang said Wednesday that the rules were clear and that it appeared the people involved in the event disregarded them. Meanwhile, Houston said he felt the fine levied against Smith wasn't high enough, adding that the province would be looking at "changing the level of fines."

"It's down to enforcement and compliance," Houston said. "I am concerned about the delays in enforcement in this matter. I don't understand what took so long and I don't understand why only one person has been charged."

Houston also said he didn't understand why the Amherst police department wasn't further advanced in its investigation on the matter.

In an email, Amherst police Chief Dwayne Pike said he couldn't comment on the specifics of the case. Pike said the investigation was still active and police were "working with our partner agencies on this matter."

"As you can imagine, we have been busy over the last few weeks and are working diligently on this matter as well as other recent incidents," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2021.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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