Premier Tim Houston said it’s extremely upsetting to still be losing lives to the virus, but it’s made worse when the cause of death is an outbreak that “never should have happened.”

Public health fine against Gospel Light Baptist Church pastor is insufficient, premier says

Robert Smith's “totally disgusting” sermon remarks minimize the loss of life to COVID-19, Houston says.

The maximum public health fine ($2,422) against Gospel Light Baptist Church pastor Robert Smith, for hosting a 100-person gathering without proof of vaccine, is not enough, Tim Houston says. Nova Scotia’s premier is looking into further fine options following the church leader’s “totally disgusting” sermon remarks minimizing the loss of life to COVID-19.

“I do not think the fine is sufficient. We’re looking at ways to change the fines going forward,” Houston said during Wednesday’s provincial COVID briefing.

Pastor Smith took part in organizing a faith gathering that spanned October 25 to 29. The event has been directly linked to three deaths in the past week, COVID outbreaks in a Pugwash long-term care home and two health zones, and a spike in hospitalizations.

“We’re also looking at…if other people should be fined as well, other leaders that were a part of the gathering, and if there’s more times to apply the fine, maybe one (fine) per day or something," the premier said.

Wednesday the Gospel Light Baptist Church pastor was fined $2,422. The premier said he’s also looking into fining the church organization as a whole, which could result in a higher fee.

The current fine, issued by the compliance and enforcement division of the department of environment, is something that Houston says he pushed for after inaction from law enforcement. He said the government fine is a “backstop to the police.”

“I can’t understand honestly why the police haven’t advanced their investigation or taken up that file,” Houston said. “Police should be doing their job, they should be enforcing the laws.”

The premier said it’s extremely upsetting to still be losing lives to the virus, but it’s made worse when the cause of death is an outbreak that “never should have happened.”

“My sincere condolences to those affected by the selfish acts of others,” he said.

In a Sunday sermon livestreamed on Facebook, Robert Smith said he “followed what god wanted us to do” by hosting the multi-day event in Amherst. Smith says the outbreak of the virus, which has been directly linked to three deaths, is unfortunate but it is part of god’s plan.

“A lot of people have been trying to shame us. It can get easy, even for me, to get long in the face about it. But that’s not what we should do. The bible says they rejoiced,” Smith said in a sermon.

Houston said he’s seen the sermon, and that Smith’s comments are “unacceptable and appalling.” Chief medical officer of health Robert Strang says the remarks are “entirely outrageous.”

When Doctor Strang was first asked about the Amherst faith gathering, two weeks ago during a Nov 4 COVID briefing, he said there weren’t plans for punitive action and that he was most interested in “moving forward and dealing with these communities in constructive, positive ways.” His tone was very different at Wednesday’s briefing with the premier: Strang said he’s angry and frustrated about the situation.

His original comments came “when we were trying to establish a constructive working relationship with a number of faith organizations that were involved,” Strang said. “But as time goes on we’ve learned more, and clearly we’re seeing the impacts from the non-compliance.”

The church event is linked to secondary transmission of COVID in the Northern and Western health zones, and it caused an outbreak in the East Cumberland Lodge long-term care home where two residents have died. In total 31 residents and 10 staff have tested positive at the Pugwash nursing home. One additional death in the Northern zone is also connected to the event exposure.

Public works minister has COVID-19

Kim Masland, Nova Scotia’s minister of public works, has tested positive for COVID-19. The fully vaccinated Queens MLA said in a statement she’s not feeling well, but her symptoms are mild. She doesn’t know how she contracted the virus, and she’s working with public health on contact tracing.

Masland says she’s tested regularly for COVID, and had a negative test Thursday Nov 11, but began to feel sick Sunday. She was tested again on Monday, and received her positive result today.

Public employee vax stats

A little under two weeks from the Nov 30 must-be-vaccinated-to-work deadline for government workers, Houston says he’s happy with the reported numbers to date. Staff vaccination rates for public employees in health care and education range from 89 percent to 99 percent.

As of November 16, the vaccination rates of employees who have reported are:

—Nova Scotia Health Authority: 94 percent vaccinated with 88 percent of staff reporting

—IWK Health Centre: 99 percent with 99 percent reporting

—Long-term care: 93 percent with 89 percent reporting

—Home care: 89 percent, with 78 percent reporting

—Education: 97 percent, with 75 percent reporting

—Emergency Health Services or EHS: 99 percent, with 88 percent reporting

About The Author

Lyndsay Armstrong

Lyndsay is a city reporter covering all things Halifax, health and COVID-19. She is a data journalist who has covered provincial politics for and represented Nova Scotia in a national investigation into lead in drinking water with the Toronto Star and Global.

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