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River at Tampa Bay church expects thousands for 'open air’ event starting Sunday

“We’re not doing social distancing, we’re not wearing masks,” Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne said. About 2,800 have registered to attend.

TAMPA — It’s been two months since Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for holding services at his Tampa megachurch in the face of orders meant to limit the spread of coronavirus. Since then, he has kept the River at Tampa Bay closed and streamed live from his home.

Now, Howard-Browne is about to reopen the Pentecostal church in Tampa in a big way — and it’s unclear how much social distancing will be happening.

On Sunday, The River will launch “The Stand,” an “open air mass healing and miracle crusade,” outdoors on the church campus at 3738 River International Drive, according to the invitation. Services are set for Sunday at 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., then each evening after that at 5:30 p.m. until June 7 at the earliest, according to the invitation and details Howard-Browne has released during his nightly live streams.

During his program Sunday, Howard-Browne said nearly 2,000 people have registered to attend, many from outside the area. By Thursday, the number had grown to 2,800. The invitation includes suggestions for hotel and campgrounds.

“People are flying in from everywhere,” Howard-Browne said during a show Tuesday. “It’s going to be off the chain.”

Attached to the invitation is a “manifesto” that includes the sorts of conspiracy theories that have become Howard-Browne’s trademark. It says the “antichrist system" — operating through the World Health Organization, the United Nations and governments worldwide — “have mocked the Church and the gospel of Jesus Christ” by “arbitrarily shutting down the church.”

“We will stand and lay hands on the sick and cast out demons,” the manifesto says. “We will stand and baptize converts and dedicate babies.”

Howard-Browne said during the Tuesday live stream that he has nine or 10 babies to dedicate on Sunday morning.

There is no current order in place that prevents religious organizations from holding meetings of more than 10 people, as there was back on March 30 when Howard-Browne was arrested a day after holding two large services at the church. Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren this month dropped two misdemeanor charges against Howard, saying prosecution was not necessary because Howard-Browne complied with the orders after his arrest.

Two days after the arrest, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order deeming religious services “essential activities," though many churches opted to remain closed and stream services online.

Now, religious organizations are treading lightly as they reopen, working to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Those adhering to guidelines will ban hugs and handshakes, suggest masks, do away with prayer books and hymnals, emphasize sanitizing and enforce social distancing. DeSantis’ office has also encouraged faith leaders to follow the guidelines.

Related: Tampa Bay religious organizations grapple with reopening for public worship

In a live stream Sunday, Howard-Browne said the church won’t be doing social distancing.

“We’re not obviously doing social distancing, we’re not wearing masks or anything like that because we believe in the blood and the healing power of God,” Howard-Browne said. "But people are going to sign a waiver to say they’re not going to hold the church responsible because you could have picked up something at the gas station or Walmart or whatever.”

During the same Sunday live stream, Howard-Browne showed a brief clip of what he called a private volunteers meeting for the event held at the church earlier in the day. In the clip, a group of what appears to be several hundred people are gathered under an outdoor tent. Many are standing shoulder to shoulder. No masks are visible.

Howard-Browne smiled as he said that about 50 people attended the meeting, then added that he “might have left off a zero.”

This screen grab from a Facebook broadcast by Pastor Rodney-Howard Browne on Sunday shows what Howard-Browne said are church volunteers gathered on the campus of the River at Tampa Bay Church earlier that day. Howard-Browne said some 500 volunteers came to help prepare for "The Stand," an open air event at the church that starts on Sunday.
This screen grab from a Facebook broadcast by Pastor Rodney-Howard Browne on Sunday shows what Howard-Browne said are church volunteers gathered on the campus of the River at Tampa Bay Church earlier that day. Howard-Browne said some 500 volunteers came to help prepare for "The Stand," an open air event at the church that starts on Sunday. [ Facebook ]

On its website Thursday, the Liberty Counsel — the conservative nonprofit group that has provided Howard-Browne with legal representation — said the service will be held in a parking lot covered with artificial turf that has room for 8,000 to 10,000. People were encouraged to bring chairs, hats and umbrellas.

Any organization planning to host a gathering, and the people who are attending, should keep the CDC guidelines in mind, said Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health and director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice.

One of the most important considerations is that people with underlying health issues have a higher risk of getting sicker or dying, Levine said.

The CDC guidelines advise religious leaders to consider holding services and gatherings in a large, well-ventilated area or outdoors. Levine said there might be less risk for someone becoming infected at an outdoor gathering because air circulation tends to dilute the virus, but that doesn’t change the recommendation to physically distance, Levine said.

That means staying at least six feet apart from people who aren’t in your household. When you can’t do that, cover your face. The CDC notes that masks are meant to protect other people in case the wearer is unknowingly infected but does not have symptoms.

“It’s the smart thing to do," Levine said.

Public restrooms also pose a greater risk because people are in a more confined space touching toilet handles, faucets and door handles.

Levine said it’s critical for people who are considering going out not to be lulled into a false sense of safety because stay-at-home measures have been relaxed. The fact that there still is no treatment or vaccine means the only tools currently available to limit the spread are physical distance, good hygienic practices and face coverings.

“At the end of the day, we’re not out of the woods,” Levine said. “Individuals are going to have to make choices based on not only their own risk but how much they’re willing to help or hinder the community’s efforts, so it’s important for everybody to plan accordingly. I like to say denial is not a strategy.”

There will be at least one high-profile attendee in the congregation on Sunday: Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.

Chronister worked with Warren back in March to get an arrest warrant for Howard-Browne. Then, in April, Chronister went to visit Howard-Browne and his wife Adonica, a pastor and co-founder of the River, at their Hernando County home. Chronister called it proactive policing — working with community leaders as the county reopens.

Chronister sent a statement in response to questions from the Times about the River’s event. He confirmed he plans to attend.

“The health emergency laws have evolved constantly during this unprecedented time, and we continue to make clear the Governor’s recommendations for social distancing, hand washing and wearing facial coverings,” the statement said.

"During this COVID-19 situation, we must remember that which we are taught during worship – we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.”

A post on the church’s Facebook page on Thursday said church officials had a “great meeting this morning" with Chronister and his deputies to discuss "traffic flow and people flow and security for The Stand.”

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