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People go through the COVID-19 testing procedure at the Baitun Nur Mosque before Friday afternoon prayers in Calgary, Nov. 13, 2020.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

As many as 800 people typically gather at Calgary’s Baitun Nur Mosque for Friday prayers. But in these atypical times, the mosque is instructing many of its regular visitors to stay away.

To protect the community’s most vulnerable, the mosque has asked those older than 65 to pray from home – or at least from outside the building.

Volunteer Kalim Ahmed said the mosque has been broadcasting regular sermons on an FM station, which allows individuals who don’t enter the building to tune in from their cars outside in the parking lot. Even in the cold of November, dozens of older members and families come and listen from their parked vehicles.

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“Typically, seniors and retired people, they need more social interaction … so they need to come to the mosque more than the younger people,” said Mr. Ahmed, the mosque’s media co-ordinator, noting that some older members were initially resistant to the idea of being barred from entering. “We had to explain to them, ‘No, it is for your own safety.’ ”

The radio broadcasts are just one of the ways Baitun Nur Mosque is trying to make its practices safe for its members during the pandemic.

Religious gatherings have been the source of sporadic outbreaks across the country. And with case counts surging, public-health authorities in various regions are issuing further guidelines and measures for places of worship.

In its new guidance this week, Toronto Public Health (TPH) is recommending that faith-based organizations cancel or conduct all services virtually. Elsewhere, officials have advised these groups to apply capacity limits.

An outbreak connected to a series of events held by the Full Gospel Outreach Centre in Prince Albert, Sask., in September and October resulted in at least 174 cases in 19 communities across the province. According to the Saskatchewan Health Authority, 68 of those cases were among individuals who had attended the events, while 106 were infected through secondary transmission.

An Oct. 15 outbreak among members of the Gospel Fire Evangelical Church in Lethbridge, Alta., was linked to 17 cases. And some 15 cases were traced to Miracle Arena For All Nations church events in Toronto and Vaughan, Ont., between August and September.

In the latter outbreak, TPH associate medical officer of health Vinita Dubey said in an e-mail that the infections were a result of individuals not consistently following public-health measures, such as not wearing masks indoors and not practising physical distancing. She said public-health officials have since worked with the church to ensure infection prevention and control measures are in place.

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“Faith communities are often significant aspects of people’s lives, and include intimate and close contact between members,” said Alberta Health spokesman Tom McMillan. “However, we have also seen a number of large outbreaks linked to these events, and need to take additional measures with community spread rising sharply.”

To comply with public-health restrictions, and taking protective measures of their own, religious communities are finding ways to adapt. This includes imposing time limits on in-person prayers, to issuing entry tickets for places of worship, to asking congregants to bring their own prayer mats.

At the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C., visitors are expected to wear masks and sanitize their hands before entering. They must also maintain a two-metre distance from others, leave after five to 10 minutes of prayer and are asked to travel by private vehicles rather than by public transit, manager Harjeet Singh said.

The gurdwara, which typically receives as many as 20,000 visitors a week, now welcomes about 5,000, he said. And its community kitchen, which is normally a gathering place for congregants after prayers, now serves only takeaway meals. Those who do not attend in-person follow its live feeds on Facebook.

These changes have not been easy, particularly for older members, whose families discourage them from leaving home, Mr. Singh said. For many, visiting the gurdwara is like a daily habit, he said, noting some would normally catch a bus and spend their entire day there. “So it’s quite difficult for the people now.”

The decline in visitors has led to a proportional dip in donations, too, Mr. Singh said. But he noted that there is a positive side: The gurdwara has so far had no cases of COVID-19.

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In Peterborough, Ont., the Beth Israel Synagogue has cancelled in-person events altogether. Since the spring, it has shifted all of its services online, via Zoom.

“Obviously, ideally … we would prefer to meet in the synagogue; there’s nothing like meeting face to face with folks,” said synagogue president Larry Gillman. But to protect its members from the virus, the congregation has observed even its most important holidays, such as Passover, online this year. Mr. Gillman says he expects the same for Hanukkah.

“We’d love to be together now … but it’s not safe,” he said.

At the Hindu Temple of Ottawa-Carleton, adhering to public-health guidelines is a must.

“There is no compromise,” said Shiv Jindal, who is president of the temple’s board of directors and a medical doctor.

This means allowing no more than 20 people in at a time, each signing in with their contact details, and keeping two metres apart. Visitors are allowed to stay no more than five minutes, and when the Hindu priest blesses them, instead of giving them prasad, a food offering, they are asked to pick it up themselves from a platter. This is markedly different from the norm, when as many as 200 people would sit together, shoulder to shoulder, for services, Dr. Jindal said.

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The temple’s community stays connected through weekly and virtual prayers, but Dr. Jindal said these do not fully replace in-person connections. “Personal contact, which is so important for human survival, is totally missing.”

Nevertheless, his spirituality, which remains a constant through these changes, helps guide him through this pandemic, he said. “That’s my duty, that’s my dharma. And if I follow it with a clear understanding, I can overcome the difficulty.”

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