Premier Daniel Andrews has announced that from 11.59pm, Sunday 18 October 2020, further changes are being made to restrictions in both metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria. The easing in restrictions follows a steady improvement in the number of COVID cases across the state.

Under these eased restrictions, there will be increased numbers for outdoor gatherings and various recreational facilities will be able to reopen to the public. Retail and hospitality sectors will also be able to resume service, with increased numbers permitted to gather in regional Victoria.

However, there remains a noticeable disparity between those permitted to gather for retail purposes and that of religious activity.

From Monday 19 October, restaurants and cafes in regional Victoria can have up to 70 people outdoors and up to 40 people indoors. Libraries can open for up to 20 people indoors. And yet, places of worship will remain closed and outdoor religious gatherings are capped at 20 people plus one faith leader.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli expressed his disappointment following the Premier’s announcements.

‘I am deeply shocked and disappointed at the disparity imposed on people of faith in Victoria today,’ said Archbishop Comensoli.

‘The Premier's announcements on the further easing of restrictions completely ignores the mental and spiritual wellbeing of many, with public health officials stubbornly silent on the reason why.

Where is the parity? The rest of Australia is doing it right. Why not us? Life, family and faith matter.’

In September, the Catholic bishops of Victoria wrote to the Premier, raising concerns around the unfairness and inconsistency in the numbers allowed for religious gatherings in comparison to other sectors under the state’s roadmap.

‘In the most simple of measures, the current restrictions in regional Victoria literally fail the "pub test": if people of faith can gather in a restaurant or bar catering for a particular number of patrons (and remove their face covering), they ought to be able to put on their mask, cross the road and worship in their faith community with the same numbers, provided equivalent COVID-safe practices are in place.

'Catholic communities have shown their commitment to acting responsibly and cooperatively throughout the pandemic, and they will be greatly encouraged in this if they can see that people of faith are being given the same consideration as other sectors of the community.’

In late September, an online petition was started by two Melburnians, calling on the Government to reopen places of worship in a COVID-safe way. The petition has since garnered more than 11,000 signatures and is looking to be tabled in Parliament.

'There is no logical reason for this discrepancy,' the petition states.

'Physical distancing is not a challenge in what are often very large venues; services are time-limited and rigorous infection-control measures are able to be implemented. A place of worship can and should be accessible in a COVID-safe way.'

The latest easing of restrictions by the Victorian Government fails to take into account these calls for consistency and fairness, with people of faith once again overlooked as Victoria finds its way back to COVID normal.