A southern Ontario health unit intended to use its powers to shut down a handful of churches, including one with no evidence of COVID-19 transmission, documents show.

Emails obtained from Southwestern Public Health through a freedom of information request show health unit officials planned to close four churches, three of which were tied to a Norwich, Ont. Christian school that had a COVID-19 outbreak. The fourth was Aylmer, Ont.’s Church of God, whose pastor, Henry Hildebrandt, has become a vocal opponent of lockdown orders, and whose drive-in services pushed the province to ease its initial restrictions on places of worship.

All four churches received a letter from Southwestern Public Health in November requesting they close for 28 days on a “voluntary” basis to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Internal emails reveal the health unit’s plan was actually to shut them down involuntarily if they didn’t comply.

Section 22 of Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act gives medical officers of health broad power to “require a person to take or to refrain from taking any action” when “a communicable disease exists or may exist or that there is an immediate risk of an outbreak of a communicable disease” in the officer’s jurisdiction.

The letters to the Norwich-area churches were dated Nov. 13, while the letter to Hildebrandt was dated Nov. 17. All were signed by the region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Joyce Lock.

An earlier draft of the letter to churches said “if you do not close within one week of receipt of this letter, we will apply an Order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act which will legally require you to close so the community can be protected.”

A health unit program director removed this paragraph, noting in a Nov. 12 email that officials would not be revealing the shutdown plan to churches.

“We were not going to share the ramifications at this time,” Susan MacIsaac wrote, indicating the health unit was “planning to take a softer approach. Meaning recommending a closure and than (sic) if they don’t take our advice in a week, applying the order.”

“We wanted to give them an opportunity to close under a recommendation but I have been told by (Southwestern Public Health CEO Cynthia St. John) if they don’t close in a week we would apply the section 22,” MacIsaac wrote in another email.

The proposed shutdown is referred to more as a possibility than a certainty in later emails.

“We are having (public health inspectors) follow-up on this in case there is need to enforce down the road,” health unit program manager Amy Pavletic wrote on Nov. 18, one day after the letter to the Church of God was sent. “We are hoping they will heed this recommendation and if not, there may be a need for section 22 however we are not telling them at this point.”

In a briefing note sent to several colleagues, Pavletic again emphasized that churches were not to be told the health unit would shut down those who didn’t close voluntarily.

“Although we are not telling them this, we may follow-up with a section 22 charge if they decide not to follow this recommendation,” she wrote.

Until receiving a request for comment from True North, Church of God Pastor Henry Hildebrandt was unaware a shutdown was being considered.

“This is a total surprise,” he said. 

“We would see it as a total failure on their part to recognize what holds the social fabric of our society together. Pastors are frontline workers. I pray with the sick, counsel the depressed, encourage relationships to be stronger, and comfort the grieving, among many other things. Church is not a building, it’s a living, thriving community of faithful people, dedicated to making this world a better place in God’s name. How can you shut that down, especially when there is no evidence of harm?”

Nowhere in the documents is there a rationale given for why the Church of God was targeted, despite not being linked to an outbreak. A spokesperson for Southwestern Public Health said the health unit conducted a “risk assessment,” which considered “our area’s local epidemiology (e.g., incidence rate, positivity rate, and reproduction rate).”

In the health unit emails, someone references a household connected to the church testing positive for COVID-19, but says there is “no evidence of transmission.” Hildebrandt maintains the church has had no COVID-19 cases.

Whether a genuine public health risk exists is important in determining whether a section 22 shutdown order would be lawful, Canadian Constitution Foundation litigation director Christine Van Geyn told True North.

“If a business, church, (or) school is complying with public health orders, there isn’t the evidence of an outbreak, I would say there’s a lack of evidence for issuing an order,” she said. “And the order, if it closes that church, is a fundamental violation of one of our oldest and most important rights, which is free exercise of religion. You can’t go around targeting a specific institution on the basis of its political views.”

“Church of God is the organization that has been behind the freedom rallies,” one staffer said in a Nov. 18 chat log. “I’ve also been hearing from my operators that members of the church have been very confrontational with their staff about masking exemptions and threats to sue their businesses if they ask what reason they are exempt from masking requirements.”

Ultimately, no section 22 orders pertaining to these churches were issued. The Southwestern Public Health spokesperson said the health unit instead “decided that education and awareness were an appropriate first step in mitigating risk transmission to members of the congregation and the community.”

A follow-up email from Pavletic dated Nov. 20 says that one of the four churches, the Netherland Reformed Church, agreed to close for two weeks, one was unreachable, and two, including the Church of God, refused to close.

“For churches who have informed us they will not close, this information has been provided to Operations and they have brought forward to (medical officer of health) Dr. Lock,” she wrote. “Dr. Lock will be making the decision on what the next steps will be. I.e. moving forward with charges.”

This story has been updated to include comment from Southwestern Public Health.

Southwestern Public Health … by Andrew Lawton

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