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COVID-19: Why did it take several months for an Alberta church to be shut down?

Fences are seen around GraceLife Church near Edmonton after AHS shut down the church for multiple COVID-19 violations. (PHOTO: Rod Maldaner, CityNews)

GraceLife church was ordered to close in January, but it took more than two months for health officer to shut it down

Metal fencing was put up around Alberta church on Wednesday

Edmonton (CityNews) — After health officers closed and fenced off an Alberta church for refusing to follow COVID-19 rules, some Albertans are wondering why it took so long.

Police and security staff were present Wednesday morning as double metal fencing was put up around GraceLife church, just west of Edmonton.

The dispute stretches back to before Christmas when the church was first directed to comply with health rules. In late January, the church was ordered to close.

But it took more than two months for health officers to close it down.

“Clearly these aren’t new legal powers,” said Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor at the University of Calgary’s faculty of law. “This could have been done at any time over the past several months.”

But police said the task fell to Alberta Health Services, while AHS said they were still investigating. They tried other measures, such as arresting the church’s pastor James Coates.

The timing of the decision now comes as AHS points to the rise of more deadly variants of COVID-19 in Alberta — and the arrival of a new set of public-health restrictions.

“One of the reactions that the public has to new restrictions is ‘what about those who are not complying,’” said Hardcastle. “And this is probably the most open example of blatant and intentional noncompliance in the entire province.”

Meanwhile some members of the UCP caucus spoke out on the closure.

“We cannot allow churches to be barricaded” said MLA Dan Williams.

Lawyers representing GraceLife church say they plan to make this a charter challenge. They are currently trying to subpoena Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw to testify at the next court date set for May 3.

“One of the things the courts don’t like is an outright ban on the exercise of individual rights,” said Hardcastle. “And in Alberta we didn’t close churches, the government tried to walk that line.”

Since December, places of worship in Alberta have been allowed to remain open at 15 per cent of fire code capacity while respecting provincial health orders like masking and physical distancing between households.

-With files from The Canadian Press