Cancelled drive-in church service in Nipawin leads to new provincial guidelines

NIPAWIN — The closure of a drive-in church service in Nipawin has led to the provincial government providing guidelines for other faith communities as they connect with their congregations.

The Nipawin Apostolic Church planned a drive-in Easter service for the morning of April 12 but cancelled the service under the advice of a provincial public health official.

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The church’s only goal was connecting and encouraging their congregation during this challenging spiritual and emotional time, said Pastor Jordan Gadsby, and they did not want to go against the advice of the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

“We felt like if we went forward with the service that we’d be going against the guidelines and the recommendations of public health and we did not want to do that... There are all sorts of ways in which we can communicate our message of life and hope and love for the people around us.”

The service was going to be held in the church parking lot with members of the congregation staying in their vehicles and listening to the service being broadcast on their car radios. Leaving their vehicles would have been not allowed or encouraged.

The health authority told organizers they felt there was no plan in place to ensure that people would not mingle in the parking lot.

Gadsby said they were willing to work with the health authority on the matter but were not given any other guidelines for moving forward at the time.

As of an April 18 press release, the provincial government has laid out guidelines for drive-in services that accommodate all public health orders restrictions.

Some areas of concern that must be addressed by organizers include ensuring two-metre separation of each vehicle, making sure that only people from the same households are in the same vehicle, no food and beverage service, and “adequate measures to keep people from leaving their vehicles while at the service.”

According to government guidelines, organizers must “provide proposals and field questions to local public health officials to ensure the event does not risk transmission of COVID-19.”

Gadsby said while he would have prefered to have the guidelines in time for their Easter service, he is happy with what the province has developed.

“The health officials are all doing the best they can to manage a changing situation and we appreciate the job they are doing.”

Gadsby said his church is more than happy to work with the healthy authority on providing safe and creative ways for his congregation to worship.

“We just want to find ways to give hope to our community and the people around us.”

During a telephone conference with the Saskatchewan Health Authority on April 14, Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said that members of the public brought concerns about the service to the authority, which is why the service was questioned.

Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said proper protocols must be in place and followed so that proper sanitation and hygiene issues are addressed. With drive-in services, keeping members of the same household within the vehicle is an important concern to address, he said during the April 14 conference.

“Several people in several households getting together in a car is the same as you know, mixing in a high-risk environment, so that certainly would not be appropriate at this point.”

Even as Saskatchewan works to control the spread of the virus, Dr. Shahab said people must remain cautious.

“All it takes is two or three weeks of uncontrolled spread and you're not just back to square one, you’re in a far worse place. I think we need to still be very cautious about how we move forward.”

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms stepped in to challenge the health authority’s ruling.

“The Charter protects freedom of religion, association and assembly not only in good times but also, and especially, in difficult times,” stated Jay Cameron, litigation manager for the centre.

“The public health emergency isn’t to stop all public gathering, the purpose and the orders that have been issued is to slow or stop the spread of the virus. If there’s no risk of transmission, then [cancelling the service] is just the improper and unlawful infringement of citizen rights.”

For more information on church service guidelines during COVID-19, visit saskatchewan.ca.

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