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

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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 for previously flouting COVID-19 restrictions. The fencing has been erected around the entire perimeter of the church and RCMP are on site.

Closing the church down comes on the heels of the 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 Alberta Health Services (AHS) came into effect.

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In a livestream of the church’s service Sunday, attendees could be seen singing unmasked in violation of the rules.

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

Health officials asked to meet with leadership from the church this week prior to the Good Friday and Sunday services, but by Thursday that request had not been granted, AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson told Postmedia.

GraceLife Church pastor James Coates led the 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.

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.

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.”

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“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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