How churches can operate in the traffic light system

Source: 1News

Explainer: All of New Zealand moved from alert levels to the traffic light system from 11:59pm on Thursday. Legislation was passed on Tuesday night by the Government which now underpins how churches and places of worship will operate.

From this Sunday, church leaders have a choice on how their congregation can gather. Legislation passed under the Covid-19 Public Health Response (Protection Framework) Order 2021 sets out the rules for services or home-based gatherings.

The Prime Minister confirmed on Monday that no region would begin in Green and that she expected it would remain that way for some time.

Northland, Auckland, Taupō and Rotorua Lakes Districts, Kawerau, Whakatāne, Ōpōtiki Districts, Gisborne District, Wairoa District, Rangitīkei, Whanganui and Ruapehu Districts will move in at Red.

The rest of the North Island and the whole of the South Island will move in at the Orange setting.

Who can gather and where?

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's (DPMC) Covid-19 Group told 1News an Order was published on Tuesday night, setting out requirements for gatherings - the group faith-based gatherings fall under. The Order took effect on Thursday December 2 at 11.59pm.

Events, such as church conferences have separate rules and are not relevant to gathering rules, unless a church runs a cafe open to the public or is holding a public event.

The DPMC met with over 250 inter-faith leaders on Tuesday night to provide more clarity on the guidelines. Another meeting for leaders in Auckland, where the Delta outbreak is centred was held on Thursday.

Church leaders can either decide to hold services for the vaccinated, the unvaccinated, or a mix of both under the traffic light system but as Jacinda Ardern has emphasised, more freedoms would be available to those who choose to be vaccinated.

If a church is not using vaccine passes, staff and volunteers do not need to be vaccinated. If a church is using vaccine passes, staff and volunteers must be double-vaccinated.

Gatherings, including home-based get-togethers can be increased in size as the settings progress.

Red setting

- all gatherings must allow for one metre distancing for the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

- Record keeping/scanning is required. Face coverings are required for workers and volunteers.

- Church events, such as conferences, cannot operate.

Unvaccinated people can attend a service if a church leader decides to implement one under the Red setting but numbers are capped to 25. Vaccine passes are not required.

Anyone can attend and staff and volunteers do not need to be vaccinated. 1News understands many churches will operate online until settings progress to Orange.

Services for the fully vaccinated mean vaccine passes must be used and gatherings are limited to 100 people. The DPMC says If churches choose to operate with the higher capacity limits that require My Vaccine Pass, they will be responsible for checking the passes for everyone who attends.

If churches are non-compliant with the legislation, what will be the penalty?

According to the DPMC:

"An organisation or business (including a church) that was found not to be complying with an obligation to check attendees’ My Vaccine Pass while hosting a gathering could be charged with an offence under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act and would face a fine of up to $15,000.

"If they failed to check attendees’ My Vaccine Pass for other activities where the Framework imposes vaccination requirements, they would be committing an infringement offence and face a fine of up to $4000. Which penalty would apply to a church would depend on the activity taking place."

Orange setting

- all gatherings must allow for one metre distancing for the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

- Record keeping/scanning is required. Face coverings are required for workers and volunteers.

Unvaccinated people can attend a service if a church leader decides to implement one under the Orange setting but numbers are capped to 50. Vaccine passes are not required. Events cannot operate.

For people who are fully vaccinated, there are no capped numbers for church services. Events can also proceed with no limit on numbers.

Green setting

- Record keeping/scanning is required

Unvaccinated people can attend a service if a church leader decides to implement one under the Green setting but numbers are capped to 100.

Indoor and outdoor events can proceed for up to 100 people based on one metre distancing and must be seated and separated for service of food and drink.

For people who are fully vaccinated, there are no capped numbers for church services. Events can also proceed with no limit on numbers.

'Challenging' time for church leaders

Church, file

Auckland Church Leaders Group Chair Jonathan Dove says communication from leaders will be key to navigating the changes ahead.

“It’s a difficult time for everybody, as we can understand and just wider society as well,” Dove says.

“Change is hard for all of us at the very best of times right? So what helps us get through change is when leaders communicate well.

"And so church leaders have a responsibility to communicate incredibly well and ensure people understand what the options are that are available to them - and they understand what might happen if they come to an in-person gathering.

“I think that reduces the angst that people might be feeling at this time,” he says.

Dove said on Tuesday night about 250 church-based leaders met over Zoom with Government health advisers for a hui, to help “get clarity” over what church will look like under the traffic light system.

“It’s something that church leaders have been asking for, for some time,” Dove says.

“It was wonderful to see them [the Government] take the initiative on this and provide a discussion where all faith-based leaders could come together and raise their questions,” he says.

Dove says Christmas services, like midnight mass and traditional Christmas Eve services will look different in 2021.

“That song, ‘I’ll be home for Christmas takes on a whole new meaning this year,” he says.

“While many churches in Auckland in the Red traffic light setting will be able to have multiple gatherings of 100 people with a vaccination pass, we have chosen to stay with online for this Christmas and encourage people to gather in homes.”

Dove says there’s “something about the simplicity of that for me this Christmas that brings home the simplicity of that first Christmas story.

“We believe, as Christians that Jesus was born in a simple, humble manger. Emmanuel, God with us. And God being with us is not about buildings, it’s about right where we are, anywhere where we are.”

Dove’s message to churchgoers who are struggling with change is that division is not the goal.

“Church is all about seeking unity with people. And it’s okay to have different view points - it’s not okay when those viewpoints cause division.

“What’s more important than being right, is being right with each other,” he says.