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

·3 min read

HALIFAX — A Nova Scotia pastor who organized a religious gathering linked to a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a long-term care home has been fined for violating health orders.

The provincial government issued a news release today stating Robert Smith, pastor of the Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, N.S., has been fined $2,422 for violating COVID-19 rules during the event last month.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says the outbreak was preventable and alleges the religious event showed a "complete disregard" for public health measures.

The release says the Oct. 25-29 event in Amherst was attended by many people who were not vaccinated and is 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.

At least 41 cases — involving 31 residents and 10 staff — have been identified at the care home, and two residents have died.

The province says the October faith gathering has also been tied to a third death, in the northern health zone.

"Because of the actions of a reckless few, we now have a spike in cases related to an illegal gathering in the northern zone in late October," Houston said in the news release.

The release didn't specify which COVID-19 rules Smith is accused of breaking. A pastor who attended the October event said Tuesday he believes organizers followed the rules as they understood them.

Brandon Lake, pastor of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Bridgetown, N.S., said in an interview that he and about 20 members of his congregation attended the event organized by Smith. 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.

Thirty-one new COVID-19 cases were reported in Nova Scotia Tuesday, including three more at the East Cumberland Lodge. Health officials on Monday reported the COVID-19-related deaths of two residents in their 80s.

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 can happen anywhere," he said. "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."

Meanwhile, Smith was heard in a recording of his church sermon last Sunday describing what happened as "unfortunate."

"This whole event has been hard, there's no doubt about that," Smith said in the video posted to Facebook. "It's been hard on me, not just emotionally, but physically. But we still have to glorify God … it's a choice each of us have to make."

Smith added that while there are people trying to "shame us," it doesn't mean "we have to be ashamed." He asked the congregation whether their phones had been ringing off the hook by news agencies, saying "mine has."

"People are trying to shame us, 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."

That Facebook post, which could be seen on Tuesday, has since been taken down.

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

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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