GraceLife Church shuttered by authorities after months of flouting COVID-19 rules

Police and security are on site at GraceLife Church where steel fencing has now been erected around the site that’s been host to services for months that have breached COVID-19 public health orders.

The Wednesday morning move to shutter the church on the western edge of Edmonton follows several packed Easter weekend services, in violation of a closure order issued in January[3] for previously flouting COVID-19 restrictions. The fencing has been erected around the entire perimeter of the church and RCMP are on site assisting Alberta Health Services (AHS) with the closure.

Police and security vehicles at 9 a.m. Wednesday still had the driveway leading to the church blocked off with vehicles. About a dozen people who appeared to be supporters of the church gathered across the road as the fencing was completed.

Just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, AHS issued a statement announcing it has “physically closed GraceLife Church (GLC) and has prevented access to the building until GLC can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health’s (CMOH) restrictions.”

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Closing the church down comes on the heels of Premier Jason Kenney’s Tuesday announcement that Alberta is reverting back to Step 1 of its public health restriction framework in order to curb the growing spread of COVID-19 and its variants.

“The only responsible choice to save lives and to protect our health-care system is to take action,” Kenney said.

Churches are still allowed to be open under the current COVID-19 restrictions but must limit capacity to 15 per cent, require mandatory masking and physical distancing between households. GraceLife has been found in violation of these restrictions every Sunday since the closure order from AHS came into effect.

RCMP were on site and AHS environmental public health inspector visited GraceLife Church for both the Good Friday and Easter Sunday services.

GraceLife Church pastor James Coates led the Sunday service for the third time since his release from jail March 22, after he was charged twice for violating the Public Health Act. One of those charges has since been dropped and a second will be taken to trial in May. Coates also received a $1,500 fine for violating bail conditions, which was paid through time served. The church has been charged as an entity, which is also scheduled to go to trial in May.

The church has had COVID-19 cases in the past, but Alberta Health declined to say how many cases were connected to the church or if anyone had died. A statement on the church’s website said there were two cases last July.

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In its statement issued Wednesday, AHS said it has “attempted to work collaboratively with GLC to address the ongoing public health concerns at the site.” It then lists steps taken prior to the closure:

-An order issued by AHS on December 17th, 2020, requiring GLC to comply with CMOH restrictions. 

-A Court of Queen’s Bench Order obtained on January 21st, 2021, requiring GLC to comply with the previous order.

-A Closure Order issued on January 29th, 2021, requiring closure until compliance with the restrictions was attained.

-On March 27, 2021, AHS sent a letter to Pastor Coates providing him with information on the continued spread of COVID-19. Last week, AHS invited Pastor Coates to meet virtually to discuss the risks presented by COVID-19, however the church has not provided any dates to meet.

AHS said in its statement that the church “has decided not to follow these mandatory restrictions, nor have they attempted to work with AHS to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“With COVID-19 cases increasing and the more easily-transmitted and potentially more severe variants becoming dominant, there is urgent need to minimize spread to protect all Albertans,” continues the statement.

“From July 10, 2020 to April 6, 2021, AHS has received 105 complaints from the public about GLC. AHS inspectors have conducted 18 inspections at the site since July 10, 2020 and violations were observed at each visit.”

The return to Step 1 of restrictions come after Kenney and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health, pleaded with Albertans on Thursday to follow the rules.

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Kenney said Tuesday he believes the current measures would have been enough if people would have complied with them, but there was growing evidence of non-compliance from “COVID fatigue.”

“Unfortunately, we are continuing to see accelerated growth driven by the variants and concluded that these additional measures were necessary,” Kenney said.

Alberta reported 931 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, after 9,126 tests were completed for a positivity rate of about 10.2 per cent. Another 676 more cases of variants of concern were also identified.

Kenney said with the rising cases of variants, it is expected they will become the dominant COVID-19 strain in Alberta in the next week. Based on current transmission data, the province could see as many as 2,000 new cases daily of COVID-19 and up to 1,000 patients in hospital by the end of April.

— With files from Anna Junker and Dustin Cook

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References

  1. ^ Local News (edmontonjournal.com)
  2. ^ (edmontonjournal.com)
  3. ^ in violation of a closure order issued in January (edmontonjournal.com)
  4. ^ Community Guidelines (pages.postmedia.com)
  5. ^ email (pages.postmedia.com)