Manitobans will soon be able to meet for in-person worship services. Here is everything you need to know about what it will look like, how local leaders are responding, and why the change.
Rules for reopening
Starting on Friday, February 12, faith-based facilities will be allowed to open to in-person services following particular criteria.
"I think that from what I have seen, we have had some great partnerships, some great stakeholders in the faith-based community to run things as safe as they possibly can," Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's Chief Public Health Officer, says.
The services must be regular services, such as a traditional Sunday service. The entire building's maximum capacity of attendees is capped at 10 per cent or 50 people, whichever is lower.
Those attending may only sit with people from their household and will be expected to practice physical distancing.
All other in-person activities, such as youth groups or Bible study classes, may not happen in person.
While not in Tuesday's announcement, the province is confirming weddings will be permitted to have up to 10 people, excluding the officiant.
These changes will apply to the entire province.
What is not changing
Drive-in services and online gatherings continue to be permitted. Faith facilities can continue to offer in-person social services such as child care.
Funerals will be permitted to have up to 10 people, excluding the officiant.
Why 10 per cent
Roussin says the 10 per cent capacity is based on how COVID-19 spreads.
"We know that is indoor, prologued contact is where this virus flourishes. And again, none of the orders that we do has been a reflection of people's hard work or a reflection on how important they think this is. It is a reflection on the virus."
Close contact, enclosed spaces, and crowding are the main concerns for reopening faith-based facilities.
Roussin previously compared the risk in worship spaces to retail, which has a 25 per cent capacity limit. He says people who are shopping are walking by each other and not in direct contact for extended periods of time, whereas in places of worship people are sitting for an hour or longer at a time.
"We know there are settings just like retail that have a very large capacity and we just do not feel that hundreds of people under the same roof right now is appropriate."
The new public health orders will be in effect for three weeks. If case numbers continue to follow the same trajectory as they are currently, the doctor says the capacity limits will change.
"If we continue the progress then we are going to be able to again increase that over time."
What local pastors are saying
While most pastors are happy to see churches being permitted to re-open in some capacity, the vast majority's initial reaction was that 10 per cent is not enough.
"I am a little surprised that they are thinking about 10 per cent, but really it is a small number that the input of how much work it would take to be covid safe and to have all those protocols and to have the number of people in our building makes it hard to think about if we really want to put in the effort to do that," Pastor Erik Parker from Sherwood Park Lutheran Church says.
Pastor Jason Foster from The Pas Christian Fellowship says "I think the church is able to open to 25 per cent as well in a safe manner."
Filipino Interchurch Fellowship Winnipeg's President, Pastor Andy Capesinio, says they are excited to see the openings but are hoping to see the capacity limit raised in the future.
Steinbach Evangelical Mennonite Church's lead pastor, Garry Koop, says one of his colleges calls the reopenings a "beam of hope."
Previous in-person worship service restrictions
The last time Manitobans were able to worship in-person was on November 11 after COVID-19 cases in the province skyrocketing, leading health officials to create a circuit breaker. In the past, a faith gathering resulted in an outbreak of a care home.
"No matter how careful you are, if we have a crowded place, prolonged contact, you are going to see transmission," Roussin says.
Roussin previously said the province saw COVID-19 spread at faith gatherings, noting that the number of instances was in the double digits.