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Hillsborough officials appeal to churches after governor’s order exempts religious services

Florida’s houses of worship grapple with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new order, which undercuts more stringent orders like the one in Hillsborough County. “I thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” said Hillsborough prosecutor Andrew Warren.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials had strong words Thursday for Gov. Ron DeSantis in the wake of an executive order that nullified local restrictions on religious gatherings aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.

The governor’s order undid an emergency measure in Hillsborough County which prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people including at at religious services, the county’s Emergency Policy Group concluded. The governor’s new order means churches can do whatever they want, Hillsborough officials said.

“When I read it, I could not believe he did it,” County Commissioner Les Miller said after the meeting. “I’m highly disappointed.”

“I mean, it makes no sense,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said. “The one thing that has been shown to flatten the curve is distancing and separation … and from what I see now, that curve in the state of Florida and in Hillsborough County is not going to be flattened any time soon.”

The policy group, which includes the county administrator, county commissioners, the sheriff and the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, decided the best they could do was put together a list of health and safety guidelines to be distributed to local churches.

“We can’t prevent churches from having services,” Miller said. “But we’re encouraging you to please follow the safe distancing guidelines put out by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)."

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren called the governor’s order “so weak and spineless I thought it was an April Fool’s joke.”

DeSantis’ office issued two executive orders Wednesday, which Warren interpreted as conflicting. The first named religious services as “essential activities,” but also kept all local orders in effect, Warren said. That would include Hillsborough County’s order, which limited religious and other gatherings to no more than 10 people and advised attendees at such events to avoid close contact.

But a second order from DeSantis hours later included a line stating that the new statewide order supersedes conflicting local rules.

“Frankly, I’m angry,” Warren said. “It looks like the governor is putting his own political ambitions above the lives of health care workers, law enforcement officers and the entire state of Florida.”

Governor acts after Tampa pastor’s arrest

This week, Warren’s office brought criminal charges against Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay Church, which held two large worship services this past Sunday despite the county order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10. Warren said Thursday that the governor’s new order would not impact the criminal case against the pastor.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said Monday that his office had urged the pastor not to hold large gatherings and that the church refused. The pastor was arrested Monday afternoon on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.

In an online video Wednesday night, and again in a written statement Thursday, Howard-Browne said he would shut down his church for now. But he called the charges “trumped up” and criticized both the sheriff and the “media hype” surrounding the episode.

“With all due respect to Sheriff Chronister, the church went above and beyond the requirements for secular businesses to protect the health and well-being of the people who attended,” the pastor wrote. He said those measures included the enforcement of six-foot social distancing rules and the installation of $100,000 in “high-grade hospital air purifiers.”

He said all staff wore gloves, all parishioners got hand sanitizer, and those feeling unwell were encouraged to stay home. He denied that he ignored repeated warnings and said the sheriff met with him before the Sunday services and told him he had no intention of closing the church or arresting anyone.

Since the publicity, Howard-Browne said his church has received “vitriol and death threats,” and thus felt compelled not to meet Sunday.

That was before the news of DeSantis’ latest order. It is unclear if the pastor will still not hold services.

By the start of Thursday’s Emergency Policy Group meeting, Hillsborough County had produced 372 of the more than 8,000 positive coronavirus cases in Florida, individuals ranging in age from infancy to 93. Overnight, two more county residents had succumbed to the virus, bringing the county’s death toll to 5. Another 63 people are currently hospitalized with severe side effects from the respiratory virus, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the Health Department’s Hillsborough County office, told the policy group that the number of patients testing positive for COVID-19 appears to be doubling every six days. Last week, health officials reported an average of 15 new coronavirus cases a day, Holt said. This week, the average is closer to 30 cases each day.

“The COVID-19 virus is demonstrating it’s much more insidious and contagious in its transmission prior to any illness occurring,” Holt said. “Transmission in very mild cases is clearly documented, and we’re seeing some degree of aerosolization, which means it could be transmitted across distances beyond the 6-foot range.”

What will Florida’s religious groups do?

The archbishop of the largest Catholic archdiocese in Florida has told parishioners there will be no services during Holy Week. Leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities across the state have pleaded with their communities to not allow relatives to travel to Florida for Passover.

DeSantis’ executive decision to allow religious groups to gather has has drawn criticism from some and created dilemmas for others who believe in the healing power of shared worship but worry that closeness won’t also breed harm from the novel coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19.

“It is not prudent for parishes to plan any activity that would encourage people to leave their homes,” wrote Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the archbishop of the Miami diocese, in a statement that was delivered to his priests Wednesday morning.

He ordered them not to conduct any drive-by confessions, no palm pickups in front of church for Palm Sunday, no confession or Holy Communion and no masses on Easter Sunday.

Unlike the archbishop, however, DeSantis refrained from discouraging congregations from gathering and instead simply said that if they gather they should do it in a way that allows the faithful to keep their distance.

“The goal is to reduce contacts with people outside the home,’’ DeSantis said at an in-person press conference Thursday in the Capitol. “It’s less important what you do as how you do it.”

He said local governments can’t shut down a church “but coming up in the Easter season, I think people are going to want to have access.”

“There’s no reason why you can’t do a church service with people six feet apart,’’ he said.

Floridians are otherwise forbidden by DeSantis’ order to gather in groups of 10 or more for any other purpose and are instructed to practice social distancing at all times, even while engaging with essential functions like grocery shopping or visiting a pharmacy.

Statewide order until April 30

After weeks of resisting calls for a stay-home order in Florida, as partying spring breakers became a national symbol of what not to do, DeSantis announced Wednesday that all non-essential businesses and services would be suspended until the end of April.

The order was patterned after the emergency order imposed by Miami-Dade County on March 19, in which the county urged people to stay home. But, because of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which protects people’s right to assemble to practice their religion, the county did not prohibit them from gathering.

“This order does not limit the number of persons who may be physically present at any religious service,’’ the Miami-Dade order read. “Persons attending religious services are urged, but are not required, to practice social distancing, such as keeping six feet between persons and limiting group size to less than ten people.”

By contrast, the governor’s order offered less guidance. It simply said that “essential activities” include: “Attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship.”

Headlines have recorded the deadly toll the virus has taken on well-intentioned congregations in other states.

More than 50 members of a church choir in Mount Vernon, Washington, have tested positive for COVID-19 and two died after a choir rehearsal became what epidemiologists call a “super-spreading event,” in which a small group of contagious people infect dozens of others.

The public health department in Sacramento County, California, which has 172 cases, posted this warning on Tuesday: “Approximately one-third of the confirmed cases in Sacramento County are linked to gatherings related to churches. Sacramento County is urging all residents, from all faiths and all backgrounds to stay home.”

And in Albany, Ga., a family funeral has led to more than 24 deaths and 600 cases as a rural community has become home to one of the most intense clusters of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

Passover and then Holy Week

April 8 is the first day of Passover, the eight-day Jewish holiday. And next week corresponds with the holiest week in Christianity, leading up to Easter Sunday. So the exception for churches has many worried.

Rabbi Yossi Harlig, director and spiritual leader of the Chabad Center of Kendall said he hopes that despite the importance of these holidays, people will gather with just immediate family.

“I have families in New York and Brooklyn, and I see what’s happening there with so many lives being lost,’’ he said. “I continue to tell our congregants that people should not congregate and everyone should remain in their home.

“Saving a life is the most import thing in the Jewish religion, so rabbis across the world are very strongly opinionated about this,’’ he added. “Based on all studies separation and isolation would slow it down. Saving one person’s life is saving the world.”

The Reverend Canon John Tidy of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, said his diocese has told congregations “that we remain closed for in-person worship to at least the 15th of May,” funerals have to be put on hold, and people should tune into the live-streaming of services their churches are offering.

“I’m glad the governor may have finally woken up,’’ he said. “But the mayors had figured this out long before.”

Tidy, of the Episcopal diocese, calls the dilemma “a delicate balance.”

“Our first responsibility is for the health and safety of individuals,’’ he said. “If people want to exercise their First Amendment right, they are free to do so, but one has to be mindful of the safety and public welfare of individuals and the wider community. Yes, you can observe sitting six feet apart but there is no point in putting anybody at unnecessary risk because what has become very clear is that we have no idea who is carrying it.”

Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report and McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.

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