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The data’s in … COVID-19 hit churches too

Holy moly, I was right. Yup, I’m just as surprised as you are.

A few months back, when a few churches argued their right to spout gospel, protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was more important that your right to be safe from the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote poppycock … or words to that effect.

Actually, I wrote: “Section 1, (of the Charter) which comes before the above-mentioned fundamental (religious) freedoms part, says the rights and freedoms are guaranteed ‘subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.’”

In other words, the province was ‘demonstrably justified’ in halting church services.

At the time, former provincial judge and old Williams Lake buddy of mine, Bill Sundhu, agreed with me.

But more importantly, so did The Honourable Chief Justice Hinkson who decided last week that while the churches did have the right to practice their religion, the province had the right to limit gatherings.

“Although the impacts of the (provincial health orders) on the religious petitioners’ rights are significant, the benefits to the objectives of the orders are even more so. In my view, the orders represent a reasonable and proportionate balance,” Justice Hinkson wrote in a ruling issued last week. “… Even if they could do so, the infringement of their Section 2 Charter rights by the impugned (health orders) is justified under Section 1 of the Charter. This part of their petition is thus dismissed.”

And Justice Hinkson debunked another oft-used argument against limiting gatherings in churches and other areas … the old “we can go to Costco but we can’t go to church” argument.

The Justice reiterated what Dr. Bonnie Henry has said all along … restrictions aren’t imposed willy-nilly, they are focused on where transmission is occurring. And it’s compelling:

In the Northern Health Region, from March 15, 2020 to January 15, 2021, five religious settings were affected with 40 associated cases. In November 2020 alone, nine cases were associated with staff in a religious setting, and four cases were associated with a different religious setting in Prince George. In addition, the region saw 27 cases associated with one funeral in August and five cases associated with three weddings (held in Surrey, Toronto and Vernon) in October 2020. This region also has a number of recent exposures from funerals that were not included in the numbers above as they are still under investigation.

The data from the Fraser Health Region showed that, from March 15, 2020 to January 15, 2021, seven places of worship were affected by the virus, with 59 associated COVID-19 cases. Of these cases, 24 were associated with a religious setting in Chilliwack in October 2020, 12 were linked to a religious setting in Burnaby in December 2020, eight were associated with a religious setting in Maple Ridge in November 2020, and six were associated with a religious setting in Langley in November 2020.

The data from the Interior Health Region showed that, from March 15, 2020 to January 15, 2021, 11 places of worship were affected with 20 associated cases. Of these cases, 11 were associated with two religious settings in Kelowna in September and November respectively. The data showed that all of the cases in religious settings in Interior Health occurred between August 2020 and January 2021, with the majority of places of worship being affected in the fall (October and November 2020).

The data from the Vancouver Coastal Health Region showed that, from September 15, 2020 to January 15, 2021, 25 places of worship were affected with 61 associated cases in the region. Twenty-eight cases and one death were associated with an outbreak at a religious setting in Vancouver in November 2020. It is likely that two index cases from that religious setting sparked a large outbreak at another facility. In addition, five cases were linked to a religious setting in Richmond in November 2020, and three cases were associated with another religious setting in Vancouver in November 2020. Vancouver Coastal Health did not implement a searchable information system until September 2020, so the data on the location of events prior to September is not available to the PHO.

This week Henry has talked about allowing outdoor religious services in time for Easter. I hope that goes well, but I also fear that the rush to lift restrictions will be counter-productive.

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