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'Not comfortable yet': Newmarket places of worship assess resuming services

Amid coronavirus, Ontario allows religious services with restrictions
June 22, 2020
Lisa Queen and Amanda Persico

Newmarket’s faithful are taking different approaches to worship practices as tight coronavirus restrictions begin to loosen.

The provincial government is now allowing places of worship to hold services under guidelines such as limiting capacity to 30 per cent.

While some religious communities, including the Newmarket Islamic Centre, are taking the government up on its offer, others have put the brakes on opening any time soon.

Keith Taylor, minister at the Church of the Nazarene at the corner of Main and Queen streets, said leaders are working on a plan that addresses issues such as sanitizing, wearing masks, air circulation concerns and protocols around singing, but he doesn’t see his church opening before September.

Instead, it will continue with virtual services and Bible study classes as well as email blasts and phone calls, although Taylor is now seeing some people needing grief counselling in his church office.

“Although we are putting a plan together, so far we don’t feel comfortable yet in terms of worship experience,” he said, adding the district office has put out a 23-page guide on reopening.

“If we’re going to err, I’d rather err on (the side of) caution at this point.”

Singing and showing fellowship are important parts of the worship experience at the church, which pose concerns during the pandemic, Taylor said.

“I’ve been here 30 years and we have a congregation that is incredibly demonstrative in terms of handshaking and hugging and that’s been a real issue for them,” he said.

June 12 was the first time the mosque on Mulock Drive east of Bayview began holding prayer services, Masood Alam, a member of the Islamic centre’s board of directors, said.

There are many protocols in place.

Members of the congregation must register and can only come when invited. They do pre-prayer ablutions at home, bring their own prayer mats, remain six feet apart and wear masks and gloves. Children and young teenagers aren’t permitted and seniors or those with compromised immune systems are urged not to attend. Attendees must attest they have no fever and haven’t been in contact with anyone with the virus. Services have been reduced to 15 minutes.

Despite the many restrictions, beginning to worship as a community again is “wonderful,” Alam said.

For Catholics, the archdiocese of Toronto instituted a gradual reopening, where church buildings were reopened for private prayer the week of June 15 and public service resumed June 17 with weekend services permitted as of June 20.

But reopening comes with a number of public health and safety requirements dictated by the province, including maintaining physical distancing and having a maximum of 30 per cent of the building’s capacity.

Not to mention, the entire building -- from the pews to the benches -- is required to be disinfected before and after each service.

How local places of worship will monitor the maximum 30 per cent capacity limit is left up to the individual location.

“One major challenge is we just don’t know how many people will feel comfortable returning at this time,” Neil MacCarthy, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Toronto, the umbrella organization for York Region Catholic churches.

“If (churches) are not in a position to follow the protocols in place, they should not open at this time.”

Other Christian denominations could expect to reopen in September, urging pastors to take summer holidays as planned.

“Engaging in ministry without the advantages of physically gathering (can) be both logistically demanding and emotionally and spiritually draining,” wrote Rev. Andrew Asbil, United Church of Canada Bishop of Toronto in a letter to the Diocese of Toronto June 10.

“Yes, please do book a wonderful summer break. Our Canadian summers are so precious and all too brief.”