MONTREAL -- Montreal's public health department is apologizing to the city's Hasidic Jewish community for its confusing and oft-reversed position on gatherings.

After heavy fines handed out over the weekend by police, members of the Orthodox community have said they are the victims of confusion on the part of authorities, who changed their guidelines several times within two days.

After authorizing gatherings of 10 people per room in buildings with different entrances and exits, the public health department changed course, saying that is not permitted under the province's COVID-19 decree.

Public health director Mylene Drouin said in an e-mail that the decree explicitly does not permit several simultaneous gatherings of 10 people at the same address.

“We sincerely apologize for the back and forth over the past 48 hours,” she said.

“It's irresponsible on the part of public health to change the rules every 24 hours,” said Council of Hasidic Jews spokesperson Alain Picard. “It doesn't make sense.”

On Friday, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube issued an order concerning houses of worship and the community concluded they could meet with a maximum of 10 worshippers for the Jewish Sabbath.

While some gatherings did exceed 10 people, the Council of Hasidic Jews condemned those, said Picard, but said gatherings where 10 people were meeting per room in buildings with multiple entrances and exits were also hit with fines.

On Saturday evening, Montreal public health issued a press release saying only 10 people would be permitted, total, in a building. Picard said that led to the community understanding “a little better the intervention of police.”

But on Sunday, a statement from the directorate of public health was issued saying 10 people per room in a building with a different entrance and exit was authorized.

“In 48 hours, we changed the rules three times. Anyone would be confused,” said Drouin.

Picard said the community would study the situation.

“We are tearing our hair out,” he said.

Police handed out more than 200 tickets to gatherings at houses of worship over the weekend.

“People were there in good faith,” said Picard. “In our opinion, the tickets that have been issued will be overturned. You can't prove to a judge that people have broken a rule that public health itself admits was wrong.”

The gatherings were criticized by members of the provincial opposition parties over the weekend. Quebec Liberal Party leader Dominique Anglade said that she understood some communities are finding the restrictions “more difficult” than others but “the rules are the same for everyone.”

“I don't want to target one group or another but a party in a hotel, gatherings like we saw during the holidays or a religious group that decides to meet in violation of sanitary measures, it's a fact that it thwarts the efforts of the rest of the population,” said Parti Quebecois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2021.