The NSW Government has now released the text of the new more generous gathering rules which will apply from Monday 7 December, in the Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 7) 2020 (“PHO7”). The new rules are much more generous in allowing churches to gather- in short, most indoor church meetings will only be subject to a new “one person per 2 square metres” rule, rather than a hard numerical cap. Restrictions as to outdoor gatherings have also been eased.
This is just a brief summary of the new rules in PHO7, as they affect churches (from 7 December).
The limits on numbers allowed in religious services indoors are now contained in cl 9(1), which allows in effect the greater of (1) 25 persons or (2) the number of person accommodated by the “2 square metre” rule. Those who occupy places of public worship will still have to have and comply with a “COVID-19 Safety Plan”, under cl 7, as will those who conduct church services in other premises, under cl 34.
Limits in residential premises (for example, for bible study groups or Christmas social activities) are now eased to 50 persons other than household members, under cl 15. There is an added “Note” from the Health Department:
Note: NSW Health recommends a maximum 30 visitors if the place of residence does not have any outdoor space.Note to cl 15(1)
This may be wise advice. But it seems clear that the formal legal obligation is to keep to the limit of 50.
There are more generous limits for outdoor religious services, which now seem to apply (unlike the previous rules) to religious services as well as to concerts and other such activities. Under cl 23 an “outdoor rehearsal or performance” may have up to the smaller of the 2 square metre rule or 3000 persons. There are even more generous limits for a “controlled outdoor public gathering” under cl 30. This is defined in cl 3(1) as:
controlled outdoor public gathering means an outdoor public gathering in an area (the enclosed area)—
(a) that is enclosed or bounded by fencing or another form of barrier, and
(b) access to which is controlled by way of a ticket, and
(c) in relation to which all persons, other than persons engaged in work, are assigned to specific seats or to a seating area.
Under cl 30(4)(a), if all persons attending have specific assigned seats, then up to 5000 persons may attend (subject to the overall 2 square metre rule).
Overall, these new rules will make it easier for churches to run Christmas services that are a bit closer to the “normal” that has been run in the past. It has also been announced that the rules forbidding all singing are also being eased. The new current Government advice for singing (again, applying from Dec 7) is:
-up to 50 performers indoors, no maximum cap outdoors
-advice is for congregation/audience to continue wearing masks if singing.
This is a little bit unclear, and I initially thought that it meant a limit of 50 on those who could sing, even with masks. But on further reflection I think it does distinguish between “performers” (which would mean, say, a singing group or choir of up to 50 with no masks) and the “audience/congregation”, who can all sing so long as they are wearing masks, with no upper limit. Which is good news for congregations at Christmas and other services!