Churches await government decision on Easter weekend restrictions

25 March 2021 - 13:32
By iavan pijoos AND Iavan Pijoos
Easter is one of the most significant religious holidays on the Christian calendar. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/PHARTISAN Easter is one of the most significant religious holidays on the Christian calendar. Stock photo.

With the Easter weekend looming, churches are waiting for the government to announce whether it will temporarily tighten lockdown restrictions on gatherings as a precautionary measure against the spread of Covid-19.

Last year, due to stringent lockdown regulations, churches had to shut their doors and could not partake in the Easter celebrations.  

Health minister Zweli Mkhize told the SABC in an interview on Wednesday evening that super-spreader events needed to be discouraged over the long weekend.

He said there had been a consultative process on what steps the government needed to take — and an announcement is yet to be made. “There have been recommendations that there must be a stricter lockdown in the sense of restrictions but then there were others requesting there should be easing of those.”

Recommendations by the ministerial advisory committee and concerns of various sectors of the economy, religious leaders and traditional leaders would be taken into account.

“All of these have to be taken into account because we have to take a decision on is what is in the best interests of SA.

“We have to take into account the fact that we need to discourage any super-spreader activities during the Easter weekend. We need to also watch what happens with interprovincial movement which can lend itself towards spreading the infection,” he told the broadcaster.

But a final decision needed to be balanced against South Africans understanding the need for social distancing and being able to follow advice given by the government.

Epidemiologist Prof Salim Abdool Karim told TimesLIVE on Wednesday that, in his opinion, the government should move SA to alert level 2 before the upcoming Easter holidays as a precautionary measure.

Abdool Karim said he was “deeply concerned” about gatherings across all religious groups.

Under alert level 1, the hours of curfew were reduced from midnight to 4am, and public gatherings — including social, political and religious events — are permitted, but restricted to 100 people for indoor gatherings and 250 for outdoor events.

But church bodies fear a move to level 2 could hamper the Easter celebrations and some have indicated that they would challenge such a move in court.

The SA National Christian Forum (SANCF) said it was disappointed by restrictions on large religious gatherings.

SANCF president Bishop Marothi Mashashane said they would “immediately” approach the courts to set aside “any regulation that disadvantages religious gatherings during Easter weekend”.

“Our position is still based on government double standard when coming to implementation of their own regulations, this proves a lack of consistency.

“No restrictions are to be enforced on the religious sector without consultation with the sector practitioners,” Mashashane said.

Council of Churches 'committed to drive down infection rate'

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana from the SA Council of Churches (SACC) said they were committed and continue to be committed to driving down the infection rate.

The council is the facilitating body for 24 Christian churches, together with one observer member and associated para-church organisations. SACC members include Protestant, Catholic, African Independent and Pentecostal churches.

Mpumlwana said they were the first to call for a lockdown in March 2020.

“There is no question of our commitment to drive down the infection rate,” he said.

“What the churches have said is that over the year we have learnt and practise our ability to manage Covid-19 protocols in our congregations and for this reason, there hasn’t been an increase, even with the 50 and 100 numbers, in infections in our congregations.”

He said churches had developed “norms, standards and guidelines” to manage their  congregations during the pandemic.

“The churches are saying that they would like to have for Easter, which they did not celebrate last year, the ability to have half the size of square metres of their church. For example, if your church is 100m2, it should have 50 people. If it is 500m2, it should have 250 people.”

Mpumlwana said mega churches under the SACC that have auditoriums for 6,000 had  requested to have 1,000 members attend services.

“When you have a 6,000-seater, 1,000 is actually small enough for you to have a wide space that is Covid compliant. We are not asking to have half of 6,000, but a sixth of the space.

“The super-spreaders are the funerals and not the church services” he added.

Rhema Family Church said that it would not disobey any laws, specifically regarding the Covid-19 regulations.

“We will always respect what the government has put in place and abide by whatever the government has implemented,” said pastor Ray McCauley.

McCauley said they met President Cyril Ramaphosa last week to appeal for an easing of restrictions on faith-based gatherings and to increase the capacity for church gatherings, and would await his response.

“Our priority is, and will remain, the safety of our congregation and curbing the spread of the virus.”

The SABC reported that Archbishop Daniel Mathe of the St Johns Apostolic Faith Mission Church of SA, said with the imminent threat of the third wave after Easter, the church had decided to cancel their Good Friday service.

“What we are saying is that we cannot hold Easter because of this disease. It kills, it is very dangerous. That is why we have cancelled the Good Friday [service]. We are only having the Sunday prayer.”

Call for stricter curfew, restrictions

Wits health economist Prof Alex van den Heever also called for a reduction in numbers for indoor gatherings.

Van den Heever said the government should also consider implementing a stricter curfew.

He said the third wave of Covid-19 would be largely determined by human behaviour causing super-spreader events coupled with the residual population still susceptible to infection [without immunity].

“I think the government has been very poor at prevention and hospital service preparation. Probably our only defence will involve a return to the curfews and prohibitions on large indoor gatherings when the signs of resurgence begin to show.

“Hospital services tend to be overwhelmed quite quickly, with oxygen supplies under threat.”

Van den Heever said the vaccine rollout in the country was also poorly managed.

“This is very concerning and the failure to provide any information on a mass rollout needs to be urgently investigated.”