It was an inexplicable decision on so many levels.
Five weeks ago, with the warning signs of a third wave of COVID-19 clearly on the horizon, Premier Brian Pallister announced he would allow people to attend indoor faith-based services without the burden of wearing masks.
It was a bold, surprising and — in the minds of many medical professionals — risky decision. And there was one glaring problem.
In the rush to create an exception for religious organizations, it appears Pallister failed to consult with a key constituency. Namely, church leaders and congregants.
It is very hard to gauge public opinion within a faith-based community that is, by its very nature, so large and varied. Still, there are pretty strong signs the majority — probably the overwhelming majority — of its members do not think going maskless at services is a good idea.
"I'm certainly not standing up and applauding these public-health measures," said Rev. Erik Parker, pastor at Sherwood Park Lutheran Church in East Kildonan.
"I don't really know the reason they would do this. I don't understand it. I don't know why anybody would want to take off their mask at church."
"I don't really know the reason they would do this. I don't understand it. I don't know why anybody would want to take off their mask at church." — Rev. Erik Parker, pastor at Sherwood Park Lutheran Church in East Kildonan
Kyle Penner, assistant pastor at the Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach, said even though public-health orders allow maskless worshipping, the overwhelming majority of his congregation prefers to wear them both inside during services and outside when mingling afterward.
"We all wear masks on Sunday," Penner said. "Wearing a mask is just not a burden for us."
This is not the first time religious leaders have taken a stand to show Manitobans that they are, in large part, willing to do their part to control the spread of COVID-19.
Last December, Parker published an open letter to the Springs Church in Winnipeg and the Church of God Restoration near Steinbach urging them to stop defying provincial government limits on religious gatherings.
Parker's letter garnered national headlines and was ultimately endorsed by 80 current and retired religious leaders. That level of support suggested there is a strong, silent majority of churchgoing Manitobans who are more than willing to make sacrifices to keep themselves and others safe.
Parker said his own church has not held in-person services since last March, choosing to offer them virtually, instead. Most of the Lutheran churches in the city, and many others within the mainstream denominations are taking the same approach, he said.
"We all wear masks on Sunday. Wearing a mask is just not a burden for us." — Kyle Penner, assistant pastor at the Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach
"I just want to keep people safe," he said.
One of the biggest mistakes that journalists have made during this crisis is to assume — or imply — that if one church wants to defy pandemic restrictions, all churches and congregations must feel the same way.
In fact, longtime Free Press faith columnist John Longhurst noted that only a very small group of churches feel strongly they should be able to ignore pandemic restrictions.
There is an urban-rural divide on this issue, he added, with libertarian tendencies flourishing more in evangelical and Catholic churches. Meanwhile, Anglican, Lutheran and United churches lean more to the side of compliance and caution; most have been closed to in-person worship since last spring.
"The vast majority of religious people, as I know them, want to do the right thing by following public-health orders," he said. "There is only a small, fractious minority that really wants to defy them, including not wearing masks."
If the anti-mask churches are in the minority — and anecdotal evidence suggests that is the case — then it raises the question: who or what convinced Pallister to make this most unusual concession?
"The vast majority of religious people, as I know them, want to do the right thing by following public-health orders." — Faith columnist John Longhurst
The easy answer is to point an accusing finger at some of the more religious members of the Tory caucus.
Several Winnipeg PC MLAs and cabinet ministers are members of Springs Church, an early pandemic-restriction mutineer, and some of the rural ministers worship at evangelical churches that have demonstrated some of the libertarian tendencies that make them wary of pandemic science and government interventions.
There is no direct evidence that these Tories prompted the mask mandate concession. But if that's what happened, it would be a sad commentary on this government's capacity to manage the pandemic response; if it were prepared to do something so risky and outlandish to serve such a small constituency.
Pallister has tried, at times, to portray himself as a leader who is willing to make tough, unpopular decisions in the interests of public health and safety. His "I'm the guy who stole Christmas" news conference stands as one of the most memorable, and awkward, moments of the pandemic.
In this instance, Pallister is not making the tough decision. He appears to have relented to placate a small group of MLAs who are, in turn, trying to placate a single, vocal lobby.
Pallister frequently celebrates his government's commitment to consult Manitobans about applying or easing pandemic restrictions. Many changes to public-health orders are preceded by an online survey to gauge our tolerance for specific measures.
It might be time to park the online surveys and just start talking to the people most impacted by this policy.
He might discover the overwhelming majority of churchgoing folk in Manitoba think that masks and worship go together just fine.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.