N.S. pastor behind church event linked to deadly COVID-19 spike fined $2,422

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N.S. pastor behind church event linked to deadly COVID-19 spike fined $2,422
Pastor Robert Smith gives a sermon at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, N.S., on Nov. 14, 2021. (Gospel Light Baptist Church/Facebook - image credit)
Pastor Robert Smith gives a sermon at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, N.S., on Nov. 14, 2021. (Gospel Light Baptist Church/Facebook - image credit)

The pastor responsible for a multi-day religious event linked to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases and three deaths in Nova Scotia has been fined under the province's Health Protection Act.

In a news release, the province said it issued a fine of $2,422 Wednesday to Robert Smith, pastor of Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, N.S., who hosted a gathering of faith groups from across the province Oct. 25 to 29.

Three people have died of COVID-19 in the past week — one at a group home in Amherst and two at a long-term care home in Pugwash, N.S. — and the province has said those cases trace back to the Gospel Light event.

Smith came under fire this week after a video surfaced of him telling his parishioners that while what happened was "unfortunate," it was all a part of God's plan. The video was later removed from Facebook.

Premier Tim Houston said during Wednesday's COVID-19 briefing he thought Smith's comments were "disgusting" and doesn't believe the fine, the maximum under provincial law, is sufficient. "To me, it's not enough," said Houston.

Public health officials have said more than 100 people attended the event and were not asked to show proof of vaccination, a violation of public health orders.

Why the delay in laying charges?

Houston said he had a lot of questions about why Amherst-area police did not investigate Smith for violating public health measures, and said "we will get to the bottom of the enforcement delays and we will fix it."

The Amherst Police Department said Monday it had forwarded a complaint about not masking at the gathering to Public Health, but was awaiting a response on how to handle it.

Houston dismissed the idea that police forces should wait for the province or Public Health to tell them to take action.

"Law enforcement should do their job. They should enforce the laws. They don't need guidance from any elected official, any bureaucrats, anybody in the civil service. They should just enforce the laws that are on the books," Houston said.

Amherst police Chief Dwayne Pike said in an email Wednesday that he couldn't comment on the specifics of the investigation.

"I can confirm that we are still actively investigating and working with our partner agencies on this matter," he said. "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."

'Police should be doing their job'

The fine was laid by the Department of Environment and Climate Change, not Amherst police. Houston said that government body was a "backstop" when law enforcement didn't act.

"I can't understand, honestly, why the police haven't advanced their investigation," Houston said. "The police should be doing their job."

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, said Wednesday he'd made the same point to police chiefs.

But on Nov. 5, Strang said he didn't think enforcement was the right action for the religious gathering.

"Well, that was at the very beginning of this, and at the very beginning, we're in the process of establishing a constructive working relationship with the number of faith organizations that were involved," he said Wednesday.

"But as time has gone on, we've learned more. Clearly we're seeing impacts from the non-compliance, and quite frankly remarks that were made yesterday, which were entirely outrageous, pushed people into a corner and we needed to take stronger enforcement action."

Houston said he hoped more people from the gathering were fined and raised the idea of a fine for each day of the event. "I do not think the fine is sufficient and we're going to be looking at ways to change the fines going forward," he said.

He added officials were looking into if they could charge organizations, and not just individuals, after such an event.

Rankin calls for proof of vaccine for faith services

Proof of vaccination is not required at regular religious services in Nova Scotia, but is required at other events hosted by faith groups. Masking is also mandatory at all religious services.

Iain Rankin, leader of the provincial Liberal Party, said every faith service should require people to show their proof of vaccination.

"We need to be consistent with the policy," he said Wednesday. "No one's saying you can't go worship. You just need to have your vaccine if you chose to enter a building or you could be putting other people at danger."

Rankin said he followed Strang's advice when he was premier, but said that's not the same as setting policies.

"He provides advice. I did always follow the advice, and then I made a determination on the policy that was implemented to keep people safe. That's what the premier needs to do," he said. "The vaccine passport policy needs to have no exceptions."

Strang said Wednesday that there was no epidemiological reason to make faith services require proof of vaccination.

"If you look at every week, how many regular services are there are churches, synagogues, mosques, temples: we are not seeing those regular services as any significant drivers of transmission of the virus," Strang said.

Strang said most faith organizations are trying hard to follow health advice.

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