Charges are expected to be laid after congregants of a church in Aylmer, Ont., defied provincial emergency orders, yet again, and held an indoor service that exceeded gathering limits on Sunday, the town’s chief of police said.
While police are still investigating the number of people who attended the service at Aylmer’s Church of God, Chief Zvonko Horvat said there’s evidence that a large group of people went inside while only some remained in their vehicles during a drive-in service.
In a live stream posted on the church’s social media page, at least two dozen children and youth are seen inside the church singing for about 20 minutes. The youth in the video are standing in close proximity to one another, without wearing any masks or face coverings.
“We are reviewing all of the evidence available to us and are anticipating to proceed with charges with respect to organization of the event,” Horvat told CBC News.
This comes just a week after Pastor Henry Hildebrandt, who leads the Church of God, invited about 75 parishioners into the church during a drive-in service, prompting police to charge dozens of people.
Extra police staff were on duty Sunday and remained outside of the church in order monitor the event and gather evidence, Horvat said.
While police observed the “large” number of people walk into the church, Horvat said officers did not disrupt the service.
“You have to take a look at other laws that are in place with respect to religious services, specifically [the] criminal code where there’s a section that prohibits anyone from interfering with with a religious service,” he said.
“Certainly, I’m not in a position to put the officers in any type of a risk where officer safety could be jeopardized … I’m not going to expose my officers to that.”
Group has ‘no interest’ in following emergency orders, chief of police says
Earlier this month, Ontario issued a stay-at-home order, requiring people to only leave their house for essential purposes and limit close contact to only people in the same household in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The province also declared a state of emergency, which says religious services are allowed to have a maximum of up to 10 people indoors. Up to five people can gather outdoors as long as they keep two metres apart from one another and wear face masks. Organizers can be fined a minimum of $10,000 for breaching the order, and each attendee could receive a $750 ticket.
The Church of God has defied the measures in several instances during the course of the pandemic, and Horvat said the Aylmer Police Service has tried to educate them throughout on restrictions.
“We are continuing with our attempts to reason with them and, so far, that reasoning hasn’t been fruitful at all.”
“This particular group absolutely has no interest in abiding by the current laws and basically they’re giving us no other option but to proceed with the charges and we’re prepared to do that,” Horvat said, adding that the police service is committed to do whatever they need to protect the broader community.
Charges in relation to the gathering are likely to be laid on Monday, Horvat said.
The town of Aylmer has logged 357 cases of COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic. Eight of those cases are currently active.