COVID-19: Churches, Gathering Limits & Virtual Worship

The combination of closing “non-essential workplaces” and limiting how many people can gather for a service has left some churches wondering if church facilities can be used for virtual worship purposes during this time of self-isolation.

In Ontario, CCCC has confirmed that yes, places of worship can broadcasting service while observing social distancing directives and maintaining a limit of 5 persons. Subject to a church falling into a listed “essential workplace,” the place of worship is to be closed to the general public.

Ontario is one of the more restrictive jurisdictions, but even where there is greater flexibility, there are caveats and recommendations to be aware of. Not only are provinces taking different approaches, the restrictions are constantly changing, so please note that while this post is current to date, it is recommended that you double check your most recent provincial guidance to ensure compliance. It is also recommended that you check for any additional municipal restrictions and related enforcement mechanisms.

In contrast to Ontario, British Columbia allows for mass gatherings up to 50 persons but churches are advised to connect virtually whenever possible, and to use smaller groups of 5 to 10 with social distancing measures in place.

In Alberta, gatherings with no more than 15 people are allowed, including worship services; however, where attendees participate in “activities that promote disease transmission (e.g. singing, cheering, close contact, sharing food or beverages, buffet-style meals)” those gatherings should be cancelled. 

In Manitoba, assemblies of more than 10 persons are prohibited, including places of worship and social gatherings. The limit itself is not new, but it has been incorporated as part of a new order, issued March 31, effective 12:01 am on April 1, 2020 to 12:01 am to April 14, 2020.

Saskatchewan restricts public and private gatherings to a maximum of 10 people in one room; exceptions are permitted where 2m distancing can be maintained (i.e. meetings with people distributed into multiple rooms).

New Brunswick limits gatherings to 10 and has a list of recommended precautions such as avoiding shaking hands, practicing proper hygiene, eliminating buffet-style eating, and utilizing social distancing. A limit of 10 also applies to gatherings in the Yukon and in Newfoundland and Labrador. In Newfoundland, the order specifies that the gathering limit applies to funerals, visitations and weddings.

In Nova Scotia, the most recent order limits all social gatherings to 5 persons or less, but has a few exceptions. Where a not-for-profit is able to maintain social distancing of 2m it can carry on business, subject to any other specific closures or limitations.

Prince Edward Island’s website notes that “non-essential government services and non-essential business will remain closed indefinitely,” subject to their ability to serve the public by means of phone, virtual services, delivery or pick up. To facilitate such service, social distancing is to be maintained, hygiene protocols observed, and workers who must self-isolate should be excluded from the workplace.  

In the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Quebec (very few exceptions) all public gatherings are prohibited.

With these last few exceptions, then, it would seem that churches across Canada are still able to engage in “virtual ministry,” albeit in some cases with fewer than usual persons.

Charity leaders are invited to share how they are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic within their organization in our online community forum, The Green: COVID-19 Response Room.

Posted April 3, 2020 @ 4:30pm

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Noteworthy is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Every organization’s circumstances are unique. Before acting on the basis of information contained in this blog, readers should consult with a qualified lawyer for advice specific to their situation.