Rabbi Binyomin Halpern says deep cleaning at his synagogue is a traditional part of preparing for Passover, which starts on Saturday. But he can’t help but joke that it feels like a COVID-19 precaution this year ahead of one of their first major holiday celebrations without restrictions since the pandemic began.
“We’re very grateful to have the opportunity to celebrate in person with each other,” said Mr. Halpern, who is with the House of Jacob Mikveh Israel in Calgary.
But it’s not just Jews who are gathering this weekend to celebrate an important religious holiday: Multi-day Easter is taking place for Christians and month-long Ramadan continues for Muslims. And with gathering limits and mask mandates lifted in much of the country and a sixth wave of the pandemic under way, some congregations are introducing safety measures of their own to ensure that everyone feels safe when getting together.
Mosques throughout the country have been encouraging people to wear masks throughout prayers as an extra precaution, and Muslims have expressed excitement about being able to break their daily fasts together again.
At St. Lukes Anglican Church in Burlington, Ont., Rev. Michael Coren said congregants remain masked throughout sessions, except when receiving communion, and members of the clergy only un-mask when preaching or presiding over a service.
He said Easter will mark the first major gathering that the church has had since the beginning of the pandemic, and will be a welcome event after Christmas ceremonies were cancelled last year.
“The Christian call is for social responsibility, so there were sacrifices to be made, and we made them,” said Mr. Coren. Making decisions around regulations and cancellations of services at his church has been a difficult process, but he’s glad to finally be celebrating in larger groups.
“It’s been wonderful so far to be with people again, but of course we’re not out of this yet.”
He said the Anglican diocese is constantly sending e-mails about evolving scientific data around COVID-19 spread and is ready to respond if the situation changes.
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Toronto said the standard direction it’s giving to its 225 Roman Catholic churches is to trust provincial guidelines, but also to accommodate members of the church who have concerns when possible.
Archdiocese spokesperson Mark Brosens said some churches have taken the time to call each person on their member list to discuss their comfort level around gathering. Some have gone above public-health restrictions to implement mask-only sections or to use overflow rooms so people can gather while maintaining physical distance.
“The past couple years of the pandemic have been a really challenging time for us both spiritually and emotionally for our mental health, and we’ve seen a thirst amongst the community to return to religious service and to return to the holidays that really mark the year for us,” Mr. Brosens said.
As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise across Canada, public-health officials have been urging people to keep masking, improve ventilation or opt for outdoor settings, and to stay home if they have symptoms or test positive.
But despite the measures put in place in churches, mosques and synagogues, not all worshippers feel safe enough to gather this weekend.
Debbie Solar, a Toronto resident, said she would have liked to celebrate Easter at her local Catholic church this weekend, but doesn’t feel safe because the facility is small and doesn’t have physical distancing or mask-only sections in place.
She said some of her family went to the church last week for Psalm Sunday and saw that a large number of congregants weren’t wearing masks, and decided to stay home this weekend.
“When they stopped with capacity limits, I stopped attending – I’m having surgery in a couple months so I didn’t feel safe any more,” Ms. Solar said.
“The mask mandates lifting really upset me, because the majority of our parishioners are older, and I’m surprised and, frankly, disappointed at our Archdiocese.”
To try and make this Easter special, she said the family will watch a livestream of the Pope’s mass in Vatican City on Sunday.
In Ottawa, Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth said she’ll miss Seder, the ritual feast that marks Passover, after she and her family tested positive for COVID-19 nearly two weeks ago. She said rapid antigen tests still indicate that result and she thinks she is still contagious.
Her advice to people observing any of the holidays this weekend is to avoid gatherings without masks, and not to gather with extended family for Seder meals as per tradition, as the risk of transmission is too high when sitting unmasked and eating together.
“I know everybody wants to get together, I know everybody misses their families and is tired of COVID, we’re exhausted,” said Dr. Kaplan-Myrth, who has a family practice in Ottawa.
“But also, we won’t just idly sit by and watch people getting sick, ending up in hospital and ending up with COVID, just because you wanted to get together with family to have a meal.”
Back in Calgary, Mr. Halpern said that voluntary free masks are placed at the front door, and their synagogue’s kitchen will be closed to minimize the use of food during Passover events there.
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