Scientology stays open, but says its virus prevention is the best ‘on Earth’

Church cites intensive cleaning and social distancing at its Clearwater hub while continuing to pack its buses and bring followers together.
The Scientology-owned Fort Harrison Hotel (right), and the Flag Building (left) as seen from the Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge. Scientology has continued services at its international spiritual headquarters amid the coronavirus outbreak while enacting what church officials describe as intense decontamination protocols.
The Scientology-owned Fort Harrison Hotel (right), and the Flag Building (left) as seen from the Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge. Scientology has continued services at its international spiritual headquarters amid the coronavirus outbreak while enacting what church officials describe as intense decontamination protocols. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 30, 2020|Updated March 30, 2020

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CLEARWATER — As medical experts and government officials warn that staying home is the best strategy to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Church of Scientology has deployed its own response to continue services and spiritual counseling at its international spiritual headquarters.

Every parishioner staying in church retreats or going into a facility in Clearwater has their temperature taken before entering, spokesman Ben Shaw said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

All food consumed at the downtown headquarters, known as the Flag Land Base, is sanitized with a newly installed ozone water system, which Shaw said “kills any pathogen including viruses.”

As many as 350 staff members have been reassigned to full-time cleaning, a routine that includes wiping doorknobs, handles, staircase handrails “continuously throughout the day, nonstop.” Staff living quarters are thoroughly wiped and decontaminated daily, as are air conditioning ducts, restrooms and other spaces, Shaw said.

On Monday, members of the Sea Org, the church’s military-style workforce, were still packing buses as they moved from living quarters to church buildings.

Shaw said each bus “is completely wiped down” with decontamination7, a powerful cleaning agent, after each use.

While the global pandemic has prompted religious organizations to suspend congregating or transition to virtual services, Scientology has not halted the practices that have parishioners and staff interacting in person. Paid services are one of the primary sources of income for the organization, and the system is kept functioning by the full-time Sea Org.

Last week, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties enacted orders directing residents to stay home except for essential activity like trips for groceries, medical needs and jobs deemed essential. The “safer at home” orders permit non-essential businesses to operate as long as patrons follow federal social distancing guidelines to keep at least 6 feet apart in groups no larger than 10 people.

The orders did not include religious exemptions. While churches across Tampa Bay and the nation have suspended services, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Monday arrested River at Tampa Bay Church Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne after he hosted Sunday services that drew hundreds. He was warned by deputies not to host the congregation.

RELATED: How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years

In Scientology’s auditing rooms, where parishioners sit across from a spiritual counselor and hold devices called e-meters, Shaw said furniture has been rearranged to keep people 6 feet apart. Auditing rooms and course rooms, where parishioners study works by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in groups, are being supplied with hand sanitizer, he said.

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Shaw said social distancing is being practiced on Sea Org buses and “staff muster is now carried on in groups of 10 rather than among the entire staff or crew.”

But on Monday, a reporter observed a bus parked outside the Flag building with Sea Org members sitting shoulder to shoulder.

Jay Wolfson, associate vice president for health law, policy and safety at University of South Florida, said decontamination of surfaces is not enough to prevent coronavirus if people are still sneezing, coughing and breathing around each other.

“The responsible and sensible thing to do is to avoid all congregational activities that involve people approximate to each other,” Wolfson said. “You can spray things down, you can decontaminate to a point, but you’re still taking a risk."

Shaw said a long-standing church policy requires that ill staffers are isolated from others. He also said there have been no cases of the coronavirus in Scientology facilities.

Jevon Graham, Clearwater Fire & Rescue division chief of emergency management, said he has not visited Scientology facilities but has talked with church staff about their coronovirus protocols. He said their social distancing and decontamination policies on paper align with the county safer at home order.

But images of Sea Org members crowding buses downtown have circulated with strong criticism on social media. Mark Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic who was elected to the Clearwater City Council on March 17, said he has fielded concerns from church watchers.

“It’s not a healthy situation,” Bunker said. “I’ve heard from a lot of family members, families who have been (estranged) from their kids in the Sea Org and they are worried to death about the conditions they are living in, so I want to see if the city can do some sort of welfare check.”

Concern over the global pandemic has also pried open a window into one of the most secretive religious organizations in the world.

On March 13, Scientology leader David Miscavige issued a bulletin to followers describing the measures the church has taken to address the pandemic, including cancelling that day’s annual birthday celebration for Hubbard at Ruth Eckerd Hall

“Factually, we have already been doing far more and taking greater preventive action than anybody else, anywhere on Earth — and by a long way,” Miscavige wrote in the letter, first reported by Tony Ortega, a longtime critic who publishes a daily blog about Scientology.

In the letter, Miscavige referred to the global response to the pandemic, including the shuttering of large events, as “the current hysteria.”

In his written response to the Times, Shaw pushed back against questions about Miscavige’s characterization, saying the wording does not translate into “no pandemic” or “no disease.”

“Have you asked yourself why we would be disseminating information on preventing the spread of the virus, doing everything possible to prevent the virus from entering our facilities and sanitizing our churches with the most powerful and aggressive decontaminant available if we did not believe the pandemic were real?” Shaw wrote.

“You simply are not capable of deviating from your pattern of stirring up controversy with respect to virtually every issue involving Scientology, even in the midst of the most severe health crisis of our lifetime. Shame on you! This is why we do not respond to your inquiries.”

The church in recent years has rarely responded to questions from the Times and other media outlets about a range of issues. But in a March 26 response to several questions, the first of two letters to the newspaper on the coronavirus, Shaw said the current circumstances warranted an exception.

“We are in the midst of a public health crisis," he wrote, "and you, me, every religious and nonreligious institution, we are all in this together.”

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