NSW Police have ruled out fining the organisers of a Hillsong Church youth camp that breached COVID restrictions with live music and dancing.
The church has sparked fury, and earned the anger of health officials, after footage emerged from the youth event near Newcastle showing shirtless, maskless revellers dancing and singing in huge crowds in a tent on Wednesday night.
Witnesses have also reported the three-day camp – being held at Glenrock State Conservation Park – resembles a music festival, with tents featuring live music and DJs playing along with “a lot of people”.
The church-hosted camp is being called out as a “double standard” as a breach of strict Omicron rules for hospitality venues.
With NSW’s COVID cases spiralling, NSW Health this week banned singing and dancing at nightclubs, pubs, bars, and entertainment facilities – although large religious gatherings are still permitted. The tightened rules forced the cancellation of the Grapevine Gathering, that had been scheduled for the Hunter Valley this weekend, and the Tamworth Country Music Festival.
The church again defended the event in a statement on Friday, saying it was not similar to a music festival, while also apologising.
“We regret giving any perception that we were not playing our part to keep NSW safe and we sincerely apologise to the community at large,” a spokesperson said.
“Our heart is for people, and loving and caring for all people is at the core of our church.”
It earlier denied the gathering was “similar to a music festival in any way”.
“These events are our annual high school-aged youth camps, and are not similar to a music festival in any way,” a spokesperson said on Thursday.
“Our camps involve primarily outdoor recreational activities, including sports and games.
“We follow strict COVID procedures and adhere to government guidelines.
“Outdoor Christian services are held during the camp but these are only a small part of the program, and any singing is only a small part of each service.”
But NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said the event was “clearly in breach of both the spirit and intent of the order, which is in place to help keep the community safe”.
Premier Dominic Perrottet also weighed in on Friday, saying he was shocked at the footage.
“These rules aren’t there for the sake of it,” he said.
“These rules are in place to keep people safe – and for the 99.95 per cent of people who are doing the right thing, I think everyone would feel completely frustrated and shocked by what they saw.”
He said a fine should be issued if the gathering was found to have breached NSW Health orders.
“If the legal teams believe that it was in breach of the public health order, then my expectation would be that a fine would be in place by the police force,” he said.
“But even if it is through a loophole, I mean, if we have to tighten loopholes we will.”
On Thursday night, NSW Health said it had “requested Hillsong immediately stop singing and dancing at an event being held in the Newcastle area”, and that the camp had breached public health orders.
Despite that, NSW Police has ruled out fining the organisers of the camp.
“NSW Police will liaise with organisers… to ensure future compliance with the public health orders after NSW Health deemed the location to be a major recreational facility,” a spokesperson said on Friday.
Anger at the gathering was particularly strong among artists – who have been hit hard by pandemic rules.
“There are rules in place that just aren’t right,” Sydney pop rock duo Lime Cordiale wrote on social media.
“Festivals, clubs and pubs are closed whilst Hillsong are getting close and sweaty … confusing?”
Australian acts including Jack River, Illy and Odette also criticised the event as demonstrating a double standard, with Brisbane band Ball Park Music describing it as “just heartbreaking for everyone in our industry”.