A Coquitlam church that protested against a ban on indoor worship last spring decided to cancel in-person Thanksgiving services this past weekend and pivoted to virtual for two Sundays this month after its members became infected with COVID-19.
Pastor Giulio Gabeli said the source of the virus is unknown but leaders of Westwood Community Church decided to move away from in-person worship to protect vulnerable people, including seniors, after 12 people got sick with the Delta variant.
Currently, three of the members are in hospital and one just got out of an intensive care unit.
“We took a precautionary pre-emptive decision to encourage our congregation for two Sundays to just follow online,” said Gabeli.
Gabeli, who is unvaccinated, was one of the church members who caught the illness.
He told the Tri-City News he is “not an anti-vaxxer,” and didn’t get vaccinated because of “hesitancy” due to difficulties with vaccinations he got for previous trips to southeast Asia.
However, he said he didn’t offer vaccine advice — either to get it or not get it — to church members, and adds most are vaccinated, including others on his pastoral team.
"We’re not going to be prying into people’s decision regarding vaccination, we’ve always taken the position; I’m not a doctor, it’s not my place to tell people to not get vaccinated or to get vaccinated,” Gabeli said. “I want to encourage people to make the right choices for themselves.”
However, he noted that out of the 12 people who got sick, “seven are fully vaccinated, five are not” and, as of Wednesday (Oct. 13), “95 per cent of those who got sick are fully recovered,”
Gabeli explained his church has taken COVID-19 seriously throughout the pandemic and followed government protocols.
What it took issue with was provincial health orders closing indoor church services while malls and other public places could stay open.
According to Gabeli, in-person worship is an important aspect of faith.
“Our desire always was to simply say, ‘We can follow the same protocols, we can be just as safe as schools as any other business that have been given certain protocols to follow,’” Gabeli said.
In the spring, the church held drive-in “protest services,” which caught media attention.
One of the church pastors, Adam Gabeli, said during an April 15 online sermon on Facebook that there was a “sinister agenda to begin to remove our rights and freedoms and to bring suppression on houses of faith particularly those of the Judeo Christian background so we must continue to meet and we will continue to worship together.”
However, his father, Giulio Gabeli, said while it was important to raise the issue at the time, concerns have since died down since churches were allowed to open at full capacity for in-person services.
Gabeli said his church takes safety seriously and people are asked to social distance and wear masks if they are able to for the sake of vulnerable members.
“We’re following the provincial office guidelines, we're doing our best to be as safe as possible.”
Still, while stating he does not advise church members whether they should be vaccinated or not, Gabeli said he personally disagrees with mandatory vaccines for travel or other activities.
He said he would like to see Canada follow the U.K. — which decided against a vaccine passport — or do as Israel has done and accept those with immunity from surviving COVID-19 the same as those with vaccine immunity for its digital vaccine passport.
“Let’s take a balanced approached to the pandemic to do the best we can, respecting people’s decisions," Gabeli remarked.
"If they want to be vaccinated and take the precaution or not. The mandatory thing is crossing the line."
According to the website, indoor church services are cancelled for Sunday, Oct. 17 at Westwood Community Church but online sermons are available.