The NSW government has announced changes to coronavirus restrictions for religious gatherings, after church leaders railed against “inconsistent” rules.
From Friday (October 23), congregations of up to 300 will be allowed to attend services in NSW.
They had previously been limited to 100, regardless of venue size. The continued restrictions sparked criticism from Hillsong founder Brian Houston, among others.
“It’s getting to the point where it is discrimination,” he complained on social media this week.
The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, said on Tuesday he had approached state Health Minister Brad Hazzard to discuss “inconsistencies” in virus measures, and was assured changes would be made.
“We spoke about inconsistencies in current rules and he assured me that an announcement tomorrow will help churches better serve our communities, ” Mr Davies wrote on Twitter.
On Wednesday, state Treasurer Dominic Perrottet announced the changes, while also revealing relaxed rules for gyms – with a COVID safety marshal required only when there are more than 20 people inside.
“This is a great announcement for the body and the soul, so whatever you worship, there’s something for you in this one,” Mr Perrottet said.
The move came just hours after Mr Houston told Sydney radio 2GB that churches were being left behind as COVID-19 restrictions eased across NSW.
“[At] the [AFL] grand final this week, 40,000 to 45,000 people [will be] hugging, shouting, spitting, high-fiving – it’s just the inconsistency of it,” Mr Houston said.
On Monday, the high-profile leader of the Hillsong empire took to social media to vent his frustration at the rules, blasting state health authorities for ‘discrimination’ against churches.
But Mr Hazzard hit back at the complaints, telling the ABC that other churches had already been granted exemptions.
Mr Hazzard said he was sorry if some religious leaders felt they were being ignored, but said he had not been contacted directly about Hillsong’s concerns and and heard of them only through the media.
“Where we have had messages come to us, we have tried to to respond through exemption processes,” Mr Hazzard said.
Mr Hazzard said St Mary’s Cathedral, St Andrew’s Cathedral, the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque and the Central Synagogue had all been granted exemptions to the COVID rules.
Hillsong’s Sydney church can accommodate 4000 people. Mr Hazzard said that given that, the church could possibly still be granted an exemption to host congregations of more than 300.
Final numbers would be at the discretion of the state’s chief health officer, he said.
NSW confirmed two new locally transmitted cases of coronavirus – both linked to known clusters – on Wednesday, along with a welcome boost to testing rates.
Nearly 15,000 people responded to NSW Health’s plea for more people to get tested in the 24 hours to 8pm Tuesday, compared with just 7401 in the previous 24 hours.
Eight cases were also diagnosed in returned travellers in hotel quarantine.
A public health alert was also issued for Bavarian Macarthur in Macarthur Square at Campbelltown, after a confirmed case visited on the night of October 10.
NSW Health is treating 72 cases, with one patient in intensive care.