Notice: Amish & Mennonite Church Meetings Shouldn’t Be Blamed For COVID Spread

Amish have been regularly faulted for failing to follow COVID regulations – going back to early on in the pandemic experience.

Now, a public health body in Canada says local Plain groups are in fact complying with COVID regulations regarding church gatherings. This, despite apparent complaints from non-Plain neighbors.

Farming in an Ontario Old Order Mennonite community

Grey Bruce Health Unit has just issued a public health notice on COVID and the local Plain community. This is in Ontario, in an area populated by Mennonites and Amish. Of note from the notice (emphasis mine):

Of concern to some public are these communities’ church gatherings. While it may appear that these gatherings are outside the regulations of the provincial lockdown, they are in fact in full compliance. Attending church service while people remain seated in their buggies at the church’s parking lot is compliant with the regulations.

So it sounds like Plain community church gatherings got some attention in the non-Plain community, thus the need for the public statement. As noted in the text, these are not classic church gatherings where everyone is packed in to a tight basement or meetinghouse sitting side-by-side on benches or in pews.

Meetinghouse in Iowa. Photo by Don Burke

People are basically sitting in the church parking lot. Old Order Mennonites worship in meetinghouses, unlike most Amish who meet for formal worship in their homes, or other structures whose primary purpose is not for religious gatherings.

This is akin to how non-Plain people might sit in their cars at say a drive-in theater, or even a political rally. But someone or someones had a problem with that.

I can see where some behavior that’s been seen in some Plain communities – lack of masks (or even encouraging not wearing them, as in at least one example) would draw justified criticism.

But complaining about worshippers congregating while remaining inside their buggies strikes me as deep-diving into the busybody pool.

Amish Church Gathering

Lancaster County church gathering in pre-COVID times

So the other thing that struck me is that the above message from Grey Bruce Health Unit seems to apply more to Mennonites, with its reference to “the church’s parking lot”.

That language wouldn’t appear to apply to the Amish, given that most don’t worship in church buildings. Unless they are also remaining in buggies, say parked in a pasture, for church service (as has been reported to be the practice of at least some other Amish). Old Order Mennonites (aka Team Mennonites) are more numerous in Ontario, by the way, than the Amish.

Buggy warning sign in an Ontario Mennonite community

More from the Grey Bruce Health Unit on what sounds like pro-active compliance by the Plain community:

Furthermore, we have a high level of confidence that such practice does not increase the risk to the communities in Grey and Bruce. These groups have reached out to the health unit for consultation to ensure they are meeting attendance limits and are following rules for outside gatherings.

 A word of caution from a medical practitioner:

…it is of critical importance that we all stay calm and kind, and remind ourselves and our communities that the pandemic is the cause of this hardship not the “others” whomever the “others’ are Low German-speaking communities, visitors, or decision makers.” said Dr. Ian Arra, Grey Bruce’s Top Doctor.

Finally, I found this noteworthy:

Recent data show the majority of COVID-19 cases in Grey and Bruce did not acquire the virus from these types of community assemblies but rather from gatherings with family and friends.

Data like that seems like it would be helpful in guiding decision-making…rather than going on assumption, excessive caution, or “what sounds right”. Unfortunately they don’t include a link to the study or studies in the article.

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