There will be no changes coming to indoor worship service gathering sizes in Manitoba before Easter, but that may change after the holiday.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin and Premier Brian Pallister say they are not ready to increase the number of people at faith gatherings.
"These are temporary measures that take into account very fully the needs of Manitobans in every respect," Pallister says. "The reality is people of faith know there are other ways to demonstrate their faith, to practice their faith in a variety of ways in addition to the normal congregant setting."
Pallister says "we have options. Those of us of faith would say we have other options in which to demonstrate and practice our faith but that are less risky at this point in time.
This Easter, churches are limited to 100 people or a 25 per cent capacity limit, whichever is lower. Parishioners can sit without masks on while sitting in household bubbles unless singing.
Pending case numbers and hospitalizations, these gatherings could increase after spring break on April 5. Roussin says he is concerned about household gatherings mimicking what happened at Thanksgiving.
"It is a very challenging period of time, but we need to get through this. We cannot repeat what we saw at Thanksgiving."
People can meet outdoors in private residences in groups of 10 or fewer. Indoor gatherings are limited to the previous one designated household or two people designated to visit their homes.
"We know that in other jurisdictions there are much more stringent restrictions on the ability to gather indoors at faith-based organizations," Roussin says, mentioning the slow restoration of gathering sizes. "We encourage people to continue to meet virtually, to reach out to friends and family, but right now, we just have to be very cautious that we do not have increasing spread."
A year ago, churches and other places of worship were limited to gatherings of 50 people or fewer, most opting to take services online. At the time, Roussin said Easter gatherings would be pivotal in controlling case numbers. In the weeks following as locals stayed home, Manitoba's COVID-19 cases increased by 37 cases, from a total of 242 with four deaths to 279 with one additional death by May 1. At this time Manitoba began more reopenings, preparing for the summer.
Roussin says if there is an instance where the risk of a COVID-19 exposure may have occurred in a place of worship it will be reported, but is clear that it can happen at any kind of gathering.
"We have been very clear of the impacts of stigma," the doctor says. "No one wants this pandemic, no one wants this virus here. All Manitobans are working the best they can to try to limit the transmission but it is just the nature of this virus."
Indoor, prologued close contact is how the virus spreads, making the nature of indoor church services a risk.
"We are not here to stigmatize anyone, we are here to protect the health of Manitobans and we are going to continue to do that as we move forward."
If holding an outdoor service on a church's property, the same gathering size restrictions as it would be indoors applied. Other outdoor non-regular services can have 25 people in groups. Holy Week activities are considered regular religious services.
Those attending drive-in services will be allowed to exit their vehicles if they do not interact with others and observing all other health orders.