About 10 per cent of a "network" of 700 COVID-19 cases in New Brunswick this month have been "related to worship-type events," the province's lead COVID epidemiologist said Friday.
But churches will be exempt from requiring proof of vaccination during certain services, including worship-related ones, under the renewed state of emergency.
"We know that fully vaccinated ... is the very best congregation. But we also know that the faith-based community, you know, are just innately responsive to anyone who comes to their door," Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said Friday.
So the province has worked with them to "try to find a sweet spot," she said.
Under the new rules, churches will have an option.
If they choose not to ask for proof of double vaccination and "they believe" someone at the service may not be vaccinated, then everyone must be masked at all times, Shephard told a COVID briefing, without explaining how the churches would know if someone is unvaccinated.
In addition, they must:
Operate at 50 per cent capacity or less.
Maintain physical distancing.
Record the names of all attendees or have assigned seating.
Eliminate singing from services.
Prevent anyone displaying COVID-19 symptoms and those who have been instructed to self-isolate from entering.
If they do ask for proof of vaccination, they must continue to mask at all times, but physical distancing won't be required, there are no capacity limits and singing while masked will be permitted.
For any other activities in their buildings during the week, proof of vaccination will be required, whether they are congregation members or other members of the public, she added.
"This is, I believe, a way that churches can operate and feel comfortable about what they're doing," said Shephard.
On Wednesday, it became mandatory for all New Brunswickers 12 and older to show proof they are fully vaccinated to enter a number of public spaces, such as restaurants, indoor sporting events and movies theatres.
The newly revised Public Health Act lists "gatherings that are held indoors" as being among those requiring proof.
But churches are not included. Premier Blaine Higgs has said he didn't want to see churches forced to turn people away because of their vaccination status, but called on religious leaders to encourage vaccination of their worshippers.
On Friday, during a COVID technical briefing, Public Health epidemiologist Mathieu Chalifoux said the province has recorded 866 cases of COVID-19 this month, as of Thursday, as well as 38 hospitalizations and two deaths.
He shared a graphic of a "network" of 700 cases that occurred between Sept. 1 and Sept. 21, pointing out "large clusters" in the middle.
Cases have spread to health zones 1, 3, 5 and 7.
Asked for more information about where community spread cases are originating, Chalifoux stressed the most salient point is that the clusters are occurring mostly in unvaccinated people.
"As far as specific types of gatherings that we have seen continued or important spread, I can say that about 10 per cent of our cases over the past month that are part of that network are related to worship-type events," he said.
United churches seek to reverse proof of vaccination exemption
Meanwhile, a number of United churches in the Saint John area are asking the premier to remove them from the list of exemptions for proof of vaccination.
Rev. Ian Manson, of Harmony United Church in Saint John, said it struck them as "not making very much sense."
Manson says the churches sent a letter to Higgs, but have not yet received a response
"We offered it in a constructive spirit," he told CBC's Shift. "We have a strong sense of social responsibility, the United Church always has, and we want to do everything we can to practise and live out good behaviours and encourage that appropriate public policies are also in place."
People attending Manson's church present their vaccination paperwork, and are checked off on a list for future reference, he said.
The Archdiocese of Moncton and diocese of Edmundston and Bathurst had been requiring proof of double vaccination to access churches, rectories or community centres under their supervision.
This applied to all religious celebrations, including masses, baptisms, weddings and funerals, as well as meetings, workshops, socials and bingos.
In the update Thursday, Archbishop Valery Vienneau of the Moncton Archdiocese advised his faithful they will not be required to show proof of double vaccination to attend Sunday or weekday masses, baptisms, prayer groups, "and others."
Other Public Health precautions will be taken, however, Vienneau said.
Proof of vaccination will be required when accessing certain events, such as weddings, funerals, conferences or workshops, where no physical distancing is required, to allow for full capacity, and there is no requirement to keep a record of those present.
"It is highly desirable for parish employees to be fully vaccinated. If this is not the case, they will have to wear a mask at all times and undergo a COVID test periodically according to government policy," he said.
"The four bishops of N.B. agree on [these] steps to make our churches as safe as possible for our faithful."
For services where no proof of vaccination is required, two metres of distancing must be maintained between different households or bubbles.
Worshippers will not be allowed to sing, but singing is still permitted for soloists and choirs, as long as four metres of distancing is maintained, he said.