A day after blocking local governments from shuttering churches, mosques and synagogues during the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Ron DeSantis joined a virtual conference call Friday with faith-based leaders and talked about ways they can help during the pandemic.
One participant asked for clarity on the order the governor issued that appears to prevent local governments from shutting down religious services, said Pastor Jeff Smith of the First United Methodist Church of Clewiston.
Smith said Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees didn’t directly address the order. Instead, he reminded everyone that the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control guidelines recommends keeping groups to 10 or fewer people. Religious leaders were also encouraged to practice social distancing.
The clarity they were looking for came Friday night: The governor’s office issued a document spelling out what his orders mean, and it specifically says “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” are considered essential activities, so they’re allowed.
DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order Wednesday that listed religious services as “essential services.” Then the governor quietly signed a second one that said the first order can "supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.”
That has frustrated Hillsborough County officials because it overrode the county’s Emergency Policy Group’s order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people, including religious services, to slow the coronavirus.
This week, the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office charged Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay Church with two misdemeanors for holding two large services in violation of county emergency orders.
But now county officials say they can no longer prohibit such gatherings. All they can do is encourage houses of worship to voluntarily agree not to hold services and practice social distancing.
When pressed what would happen to those churches that held large services and did not enforce social distancing, Zack Gibson, the state’s liaison for the governor’s faith initiative, referred the Tampa Bay Times to the governor’s office. But officials there did not respond to a request for comment.
The governor established the Governor’s Faith and Community-Based Initiative in November. Under the direction of Erik Dellenback, who is also executive director of the Tim Tebow Foundation, the initiative “serves to collaborate between state government and Florida’s faith-based institutions and community organizations,” according to its website.
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Friday’s conference call was led by Dellenback, who could not be reached for comment. Gibson confirmed that the governor and the state’s surgeon general were also on the call.
“We were asked to step up,” said Trenia Cox, a former St. Petersburg City Council candidate who took part in the conference call for members of the Governor’s Faith and Community-Based Initiative.
“This a crisis we are in and a lot of churches are trying to be of support to families who are at risk and individuals who are at risk and communities that might find these to be challenging times,” she said.
The initiative’s website lists eight ways faith-based organizations can assist during the coronavirus outbreak. Those include starting hotlines that provide spiritual counseling, leading food drives and providing daycare for children of first responders.
“My understanding is the faith based advocates will continue to support the governor’s position on social distancing and we will continue to acknowledge churches as first responders and hope churches will take the most appropriate lead in that effort by using whatever they think is appropriate but in compliance," said Cox, who also serves on the advisory council of the governor’s faith initiative and is a past chair.
St. Petersburg’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, where she worships, is already holding virtual services. So is First United Methodist Church of Clewiston.
The initiative’s website also calls for finding “Creative Ways to Gather.”
“We have heard of some innovative ways that you are gathering while still honoring the CDC guidelines for large gatherings,” says its website. “From online services and conference calls to drive-in services, you have certainly found creative ways to meet.”
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