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St. Stephen’s Anglican Church will reopen its doors to worshippers next month, but not everyone will be welcome.

Parishioners who want a seat in the sanctuary will have to RSVP a few days prior and clear a coronavirus screening test. Then, after walking through the designated doors, worshippers must sit in assigned seats, filling those at the front first. St. Stephen’s uses chairs rather than pews, and each week, volunteers will configure the church’s seats to align with the guest list. Families and cohorts can sit together in clusters, which will be spaced two metres from their nearest neighbours.

“Once upon a time, you just showed up to church and sat wherever you wanted. Or sat in the pew you sat in for 50 years,” said Heather Campbell, a member of the Calgary church’s leadership team. “That’s not how we’re doing it in the After Times.”

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Alberta and British Columbia have traced dozens of new cases of COVID-19, which is caused by the novel coronavirus, to recent religious gatherings in the landlocked province. Health officials declared outbreaks tied to a prayer gathering on the August long weekend near Deadwood and, separately, Edmonton’s Bible Pentecostal Church. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, this week noted scores of social gatherings, rather than just the two faith-based events, are fuelling COVID-19 in the province. At St. Stephen’s, the outbreaks are a reminder of the risks that come with meeting in confined spaces, and the importance of following public-health orders.

“I parsed the government guidance in a similar manner to the way I would parse out legislation or a regulation, standard or code at the office,” said Ms. Campbell, an engineer who works in corporate compliance for an energy company in Calgary. “Then I went about determining how we would comply with each line item.”

And for those unable to attend, or not quick enough to call dibs on one of the 64 seats available on Sept. 6, St. Stephen’s will continue to broadcast Sunday services online.

Alberta earlier this week said the Bible Pentecostal Church had precautions in place. Brent King, the senior pastor with Christ Community Church in Grande Prairie, said he believes organizers of the prayer gathering in nearby Deadwood also adhered to public-health guidelines like physical distancing and sanitization.

“As far as I understand, they did everything that was required of them,” he said, noting he was not at the event but was involved in promoting it within his church.

Dr. Hinshaw said on Thursday her office is investigating whether protocols were breached.

Alberta had 1,084 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, according to data released on Thursday. The Edmonton zone hosted 631, making it a national hot spot.

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Gordon Smith, president of Ambrose University, a Christian postsecondary institution in Calgary, said faith explains why he is committed to following public-health guidelines. Right now, loving thy neighbour means standing two metres away and attending online church services.

“We do so because we care about other people,” he said. “It perplexes me when someone uses religious faith as a pretense to exempt themselves from these normal protocols.”

He said he is worried people of faith will be stigmatized if other followers break the rules because they believe they are protected by a higher power or that a divine leader has a plan for them.

“It alarms us that we get painted with that broad brush,” he said. “There are extremists of every camp.”

Dr. Hinshaw on Thursday said the shame people with coronavirus experience could make it difficult to control COVID-19 because some may be less willing to be forthcoming about their symptoms, get tested or be honest with contact tracers about their activities.

“Shame is an emotion that drives people to hide or to cover up what they are ashamed of,” she said. “It can be triggered by anger and judgment from others, or by an individual’s own beliefs about what has happened. We need to fight shame with compassion.”

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