Religious organizations across Tampa Bay began cancelling services and prohibiting congregations in early March, even before Pinellas County issued its stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The Church of Scientology, however, implemented an intense decontamination and cleaning protocol at its international headquarters downtown while continuing to sell spiritual counseling and courses to parishioners.
Video showing members of the Sea Org, Scientology’s militia-like work force, packing a bus on March 21 went viral, and on Monday a reporter observed a bus parked outside of Flag with staff sitting shoulder to shoulder. Newly elected City Council member Mark Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic, asked the city to perform a welfare check.
On Tuesday, Police Chief Dan Slaughter showed up to Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel unannounced to inspect the buildings and ensure Scientology was complying with measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Over a 30-minute tour of the church’s Fort Harrison Hotel and its Flag Building, Slaughter said he observed multiple locations with surgical masks, gloves and sanitizer; no groups congregating in common areas; a closed hotel pool; and employees standing six feet apart while waiting in line in dining areas.
Slaughter also said he observed buses on Monday and Tuesday occupied with less than 15 people.
"My goal was to get this resolved, whether it was a problem or not," Slaughter said. "I think they are doing a pretty darn good job in this particular scenario based on what I saw."
Bunker called the check “a good first step” in his desire to see the city more proactively scrutinize the practices of Scientology amid decades of allegations of fraud and abuse. But he said he also would like the city to go further by keeping an eye on the housing units occupied by Scientology Sea Org members. The units are not subject to scrutiny under the county’s safer at home order because they are the workers’ homes. So distancing guidelines would not officially apply.
But former Sea Org members have reported living with as many as a dozen others in small apartments, raising safety concerns for Bunker for a highly contagious disease that spreads through human to human interaction.
“We only saw what they wanted us to see,” Bunker said of Slaughter’s guided inspection. “They’re keeping the public spaces where the wealthy donors are polished and infection-free even if all that polishing and sprays they use to disinfect can’t stop the virus if someone coughs or sneezes. We just need to make sure they are doing it for everyone.”
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times last week, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said Sea Org staff wipe down their apartments every morning with Decon7, a powerful cleaning agent. Once staff leave the apartments, a separate team goes through with a Decon7 fog, he said, and a special pre-wash dilution of Decon7 is used on all clothes and linens.
He also said staff muster is being conducted in groups less than 10 rather than all at once.
But Slaughter’s unannounced inspection has a larger symbolism for critics of the city’s relationship with Scientology.
Mike Rinder, Scientology’s former international spokesman who defected in 2007, said Sea Org members are forbidden from consuming any media outside of Scientology literature. He said that dynamic would prevent staff from obtaining news reports about the severity of the cornavirus.
All they have, Rinder said, is what Scientology leader David Miscavige puts out on the subject. And in a March 13 bulletin to parishioners about Scientology’s coronavirus protocols, Miscavige referred to the global response to the pandemic, including the shuttering of large events, as “the current hysteria.”
Slaughter’s presence amid this pandemic sends a message, Rinder said.
“Chief Slaughter went out of his way to go observe the buses and walk in the building and say ‘I want to see what’s going on,’” he said. “When a bunch of them saw the chief of police wandering around in the Fort Harrison, that news spread among everybody instantly that this is like an almost unprecedented thing. Raising the awareness of people inside is important.”
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