Public health orders closure of Old Order Mennonite churches, schools

Section 22 orders also require community members to follow public health measures

NORTH WELLINGTON – Public health has ordered the closure of schools and churches in Old Order Mennonite communities in northern Wellington County.

Individuals in these communities have also been ordered to follow public health measures such as wearing masks, reducing the size of social gatherings, cooperating with contact tracing, getting tested for COVID-19 if symptomatic and isolating if sick.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer, of Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH), issued three Section 22 orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act on Nov. 12.

They were hand-delivered to elders in Old Order Mennonite communities in Wellington North, Mapleton and Minto.

“I’m truly sad that I have to do this,” Mercer said in an interview on Nov. 12.

“We’ve been talking with them since March … My staff has tried, and I have personally tried to reason with them, but have not been successful.”

Mercer said a recent spike in cases in Wellington County can largely be attributed to this population, many of whom do not wear masks, do not observe physical distancing, and have not altered their behaviour due to the pandemic.

“Wellington County was green. It had a low rate. But on Nov. 4 there were five cases; on Nov. 6 there were 20; and we peaked on Nov. 11 with 33 cases. That’s substantial,” she said.

“Of the number of cases in Wellington County (at this time), the majority fall in that community.”

Mercer stressed the orders have nothing to do with religion or personal beliefs.

And they do not apply to other Mennonite sects in the area, such as David Martin Mennonites, who are already following the rules.

“It’s about behaviours and putting others at increased risk,” Mercer said.

She explained children are not wearing masks in school, they are not physical distancing “and they haven’t stopped singing.”

The same disregard for public health measures is happening at religious and social gatherings in this community, Mercer added.

“We know places of worship without protection become sources of outbreaks,” she said.

She also noted some individuals have been uncooperative with contact tracing and most do not go for testing when urged.

“We are aware a large number are ill and have not been tested. Go for testing. It’s free,” she said.

Mercer said the Section 22 orders will make a strong statement to the community that its members have to obey the law.

The orders “give clarity that it’s a legal requirement and not optional. It also tells them there could be fines,” she said.

“We hope it won’t get to that.”

Mercer said the order now means no religious gatherings are allowed in the Old Order Mennonite community without the permission of public health.

Like everywhere else in the WDGPH region, private gatherings are limited to 10 people inside and 25 outside.

The orders stand until Mercer withdraws them.

She said most recently there has been an outbreak at Marigold Hollow Parochial School, located southeast of Mount Forest, and another outbreak that started at a wedding with about 100 guests indoors.

Mercer said everyone has to alter their behaviour due to the pandemic – especially when it comes to social visits.

It’s fine to meet up with people and spend time outdoors, but no kids’ sleepovers or indoor play dates, no going to a friend’s house for dinner and no visiting kids or grandkids indoors.

“During the pandemic we’re asking people not to do that,” Mercer said. “This is behaviour that needs to change.”

Simply put: “do not go inside anyone else’s house,” she said.