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Coronavirus in Florida latest: church pastor arrested, school closure extended, Scientology stays open

Here’s what you need to know for Tuesday, March 31.

Stories about the coronavirus pandemic are free to read as a public service at tampabay.com/coronavirus. If this coverage is important to you, consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tampa Bay Times at tampabay.com/subscribe.

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Florida’s coronavirus caseload surged past 5,700 Monday, with confirmed cases in 52 of the state’s 67 counties. In five days, Hillsborough County has gone from breaking 100 cases to blowing past 270.

Tampa pastor arrested for defying county order

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne insists that providing his flock with in-person church services at the River of Tampa Bay Church is, well, an essential service. That stance got him arrested Monday, a development that turned into a national news story.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a news conference Monday afternoon that he sought an arrest warrant for Howard-Browne, a right-wing Pentecostal pastor and conspiracy theorist, after he ignored warnings from the Sheriff’s Office that holding services at the church violated the county’s safer-at-home order. Howard-Browne turned himself in later in the afternoon and was quickly released after posting bail.

School closure extended to May 1

Distance learning will continue for at least another two weeks after Florida’s education commissioner called Monday for district and charter schools to remain closed until May 1.

Commissioner Richard Corcoran made the call a day after President Trump extended his social distancing guidelines through April 30. In-person classes already had been called off through April 15, with all spring testing canceled. Distance learning began in earnest Monday morning for most schools, after an extended spring break.

Scientology stays open

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.

The Clearwater-based church says it has stepped up efforts to clean and sanitize its facilities and is practicing social distancing, keeping parishioners six feet apart and in groups of fewer than 10 people. But on Monday, a reporter observed a bus parked outside the Flag building with Sea Org members sitting shoulder to shoulder.

Hotels for hospital relief

Hillsborough County has signed leases with two hotels to house coronavirus patients if hospitals become overloaded.

County Administrator Mike Merrill told members of the county’s Emergency Policy Group that the county has signed six-month renewable leases with two hotels, which can provide 360 beds for residents who either need to isolate or quarantine because of the virus. The names of the hotels will be released soon.

The Yuengling Center, formerly known as the USF Sun Dome, has been identified as an alternate site that could set up 250 beds,

Raymond James Stadium to re-open for testing

People who are symptomatic and meet other criteria will once again be able to get tested for COVID-19 at Raymond James Stadium once the county re-opens its drive-thru testing site Wednesday.

Hillsborough County secured an additional 1,500 test kits and nasal swabs from the state, allowing officials to operate the drive-thru site for three more days — Wednesday through Friday from 8 to 11 a.m.

Mayoral messages

Mayor Rick Kriseman issued a warning Monday to residents who have not been abiding by social distancing guidelines in city parks: Abide by the county safer-at-home order or you’ll get a citation.

Kriseman began a news conference broadcast via Facebook Live to lambaste those who misuse the parks. The parks, he said, remain open for walking, jogging, running, cycling and to soak up some sun. They are not open for picnics, pickup football games or for playing volleyball.

Across the bay, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Monday that her city seems to be doing well spacing out during the coronavirus outbreak. In a Facebook Live appearance, Castor said she drove around over the weekend and didn’t see any large crowds of people, which would be a violation of the county’s order.

Speaking of parks, Pasco County announced Monday that is was closing all of its parks and nature preserves except for boat ramps and the Suncoast Trail.

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