This Sunday, some churchgoers in the Edmonton area wore masks. Others did not, but public health experts warn the indoor gatherings can be high-risk venues for COVID-19 transmission.
The provincial government’s mask mandate, first announced last Friday for indoor spaces, does not include places of worship.
The City of Edmonton’s Aug. 30 bylaw already laid out an exemption for eating or drinking, including during religious ceremonies — but that became broader as of Friday. Now, anyone participating in a religious service or ceremony, including musicians, those eating or drinking as part of a rite or ceremony, and wedding parties, is not required to wear a mask, although they need to stay two metres away or be separated by a physical barrier from other attendees.
Experts say the provincial decision to exempt places of worship from the rule doesn’t make sense from a public health perspective.
Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s former chief medical officer of health and co-chairman of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, said Saturday there are no good reasons to exempt churches. He noted they have been associated with outbreaks before, and warned they will be again if no precautions are taken.
“It’s a higher risk setting than going and picking up a bottle of milk … because of the length of time that you’re there and exposed,” said Talbot, who added at the very least, Albertans should expect the same rules in places of worship as other public places like stores.
Dr. Stephanie Smith, a University of Alberta infectious disease expert, said large religious gatherings in indoor spaces can be a risk and the province hasn’t offered a good rationale for why public health restrictions have been left to local authorities.
“Those are situations where people should be masked,” said Smith.
Lisa Glover, a spokeswoman for Alberta Health, said in a statement factors like “respiratory exertion” and how much households mix during the activity have been considered, and public health orders for indoor public masking have always come with exemptions that have changed with public health officials’ understanding of COVID-19.
The provincial order also allows those in farming and ranching, fitness, and with health conditions to remain unmasked. Glover added even in places where masks aren’t required, Albertans are “strongly encouraged” to wear them.
However, Smith said the lack of consistent province-wide restrictions, including in schools and churches, means there are “no teeth to the recommendations,” and sends a mixed message that the risk of COVID-19 isn’t urgent.
“It makes it more confusing to people — and that’s the last thing we need,” said Smith.
Lorian Hardcastle, a health law and policy expert at the University of Calgary, agreed the patchwork of rules across the province is problematic and could lead to problems with enforcement. Hardcastle said she doesn’t believe mandatory masking in churches would violate religious freedoms, and the province’s decision could be political.
“From a public health perspective, I don’t think exempting churches is justified at all, and so there has to be something else going on,” said Hardcastle.
Throughout the pandemic, a small number of Alberta churches, including Edmonton-area’s GraceLife Church, openly flouted COVID-19 public health restrictions.
Hardcastle noted that some of the most heated public health confrontations and enforcement problems were in a handful of religious settings or came from religious leaders.
However, she said political considerations shouldn’t be a factor in government decisions during a state of public health crisis.
“This government has tried to have too many exceptions or conflicting exceptions or hasn’t been able to explain the science behind some of its exemptions,” said Hardcastle, who added that strategy has alienated both sides of the political spectrum — those who publicly decry health restrictions and those who support them.
“That lack of transparency breeds non-compliance,” she said.