Easing of COVID-19 Restrictions & its Implications for Churches

As Australia and Queensland start to take steps to “re-open” following extensive restrictions, the purpose of this article is to provide churches with the latest relevant update to ensure churches remain adequately informed.

Over the last few months, Australia has experienced a tremendous amount of success in containing the spread of the COVID-19. Prime Minister Scott Morrison in his media address on 8 May 2020, spoke to this very point praising Australia’s success in ‘flattening the curve’. As a result of this success, the National Cabinet held a meeting on 8 May 2020 to discuss potential options for easing restrictions over the coming months.

From this meeting, the National Cabinet proposed a nation-wide three-step plan to begin easing restrictions. The purpose of this plan is to work towards a COVID safe Australia by July 2020 whilst re-opening the economy. Within the three-step plan:

  • Step 1 will focus on granting more freedom for Australians to connect socially with friends and family. It will allow gatherings of up to 10 people with up to 5 visitors in a family home. Step 1 will further seek to re-open businesses and provide a greater opportunity for Australians to return to work.
  • Step 2 will continue to build upon step 1 by allowing larger gatherings of up to 20 people and more businesses to re-open.
  • Step 3 will seek to transition Australia to a COVID safe way of living and working. This will likely remain the ‘new normal’ until a permanent solution has been found against the virus. Gatherings of up to 100 people will be allowed at this point with interstate travel being re-opened.

It should be noted that the adoption of this plan will vary between States and Territories. States and territories will be able to transition between each step at different times in line with their public health situations.

In light of the coming changes, what are the implications of these changes for churches in Queensland in the coming months; and when should we expect these changes?

Implications for Churches in Queensland:

Following the National Cabinet’s announcement, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced the timeline for Queensland’s adoption of the three-step plan.

  • Step 1 will commence on 15 May 2020 at 11:59pm. This change has a few implications for churches. For live-streams, this will mean that up to 10 people may gather to provide church live-streaming services. Small group gatherings of up to 10 people may also be permitted under these changes.
  • Step 2 will become effective from 12 June 2020 at 11:59pm. For live-streams, this will mean that up to 20 people may be present to deliver the live-stream service. Small group gatherings of up to 20 people are also permitted at this point.
  • Step 3 will commence on 10 July 2020 at 11:59pm. Smaller churches with less than 100 congregation members will be able to fully re-open. For larger churches, alternatives may potentially be explored by limiting the number of members gathered at one point; holding multiple services; or providing live-stream and in-person services at the same time. All other gatherings including small groups, youth groups, and other community activities with less than 100 people will also be permitted.

With each of these gatherings, it is important to note that the contact details must be recorded. This is to allow for contact tracing in order to quickly contain the spread of the virus in the event it does spread in the church.

Practical steps that churches should undertake:

With these changes coming in the foreseeable future, it is important to still keep in mind that these steps are merely ‘sensible, gradual steps to a safe COVID recovery that reconnects our communities and keeps the economy moving… we don’t want to undo all our good work” says Ms Palaszczuk. Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young indicated that increases in COVID-19 cases are entirely possible, but can be managed if Queenslanders take the necessary pre-cautions to safeguard against this. Queenslanders therefore “have to keep vigilant” says Dr Young.

As a part of the community churches should continue to observe that necessary pre-cautions are undertaken as restrictions are eased. Some suggested steps that should be undertaken are that:

  • social distancing of 1.5m should still be observed whenever possible;
  • good hygiene should still be observed with good hand washing and cough/sneeze hygiene;
  • encourage the congregation to stay at home and get tested if they are unwell with a fever or respiratory symptoms;
  • encourage the download of the COVID Safe app in order to quickly track the spread of the virus; and
  • COVID safe plans should be developed for each church while observing relevant government guidelines.

These will help ensure that churches are doing what they can to protect both congregation members and the wider community.

Current restrictions as of 13 May 2020:

Despite these future changes, the current restrictions as of 13 May 2020 has largely remained the same since last week’s update. In accordance with the latest directions under the Non-Essential Business, Activity and Undertaking Closure Direction (No.9) updated on 8 May 2020, churches remain restricted to gatherings with a maximum of 5 people. Live streaming activities may continue to be undertaken with a maximum of 5 people.

The penalties for breaching these rules have also remain the same in accordance with s 362D of the Public Health Act 2005 providing that breach of public health directions may result in a maximum of 100 penalty units; which is equivalent to $13,345. A reasonable excuse may be given to escape liability.

Final words:

The easing of restrictions is exciting news for churches seeking to re-open their services. In the next few months, we may continue to see changes that can bring churches some sense of ‘normality’ as congregation members may be able to gather in increasingly larger groups.

The National Cabinet and the Queensland government will continue to closely monitor the impact of these changes and any concerns arising out of these changes before taking actions to continue striving towards a COVID safe Australia.

Written By James Tan & Ervin Hii (student placement)

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