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Coronavirus prompts Tarpon Springs to limit Epiphany as church resists

“The church has armed individuals, trained with license to carry, and if we need to bring those in because the city doesn’t want to help us, we’ll bring them in,” said the attorney for St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Thousands are shown here gathering along the edge of Spring Bayou during the annual Epiphany celebration Monday, Jan. 6, 2020 in Tarpon Springs.
Thousands are shown here gathering along the edge of Spring Bayou during the annual Epiphany celebration Monday, Jan. 6, 2020 in Tarpon Springs. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020|Updated Dec. 16, 2020

TARPON SPRINGS — St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s Epiphany celebration is on for Jan. 6, but Tarpon Springs Police Chief Robert Kochen warned Tuesday that law enforcement would not support the annual cross dive if a typical-sized crowd gathers to watch.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, city commissioners on Tuesday approved a special event permit with two conditions: organizers must eliminate the formal procession from the Cathedral to the Spring Bayou and limit attendance of the dive.

The cathedral and police must now determine how many people will be admitted and how to keep out spectators beyond parishioners and family of the 50 boys diving into waters blessed by clergy. But church officials objected when the police chief said law enforcement would not staff the event unless crowd size is limited.

“The church has armed individuals, trained with license to carry, and if we need to bring those in because the city doesn’t want to help us, we’ll bring them in,” said attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos, who represents the cathedral.

“Work with us, and if the sheriff doesn’t want to work with us, we’ll work around him, we don’t need him,” Theophilopoulos said.

In normal years, about 20,000 people flock to the Spring Bayou following a long Mass at the cathedral, a tradition that celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist. Kochen said even a few hundred huddled around the bayou would be “a public health concern” that would not be staffed by Tarpon Springs Police or the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

“This is not about religious discrimination,” Kochen said. “This is not about anything other than public health and security.”

Kochen said the police department, as it has in past years, began planning logistics with church officials months ago.

The cathedral agreed to host a smaller event, including limiting Mass attendance to 50 percent church capacity, or 250 people, and canceling the Glendi celebration of food and music that closes out the day. To deter spectators, the church won’t post the time of the cross dive and will encourage parishioners to watch the event online.

But after the chief got a call from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri on Monday, Kochen said he agreed with his decision that the crowd at the bayou must be limited.

“He said I cannot support this event if you’re going to have a large crowd,” Kochen said of his conversation with Gualtieri. “You’re not going to be able to control it, I’m not going to support it and the sheriff told me tonight just before this meeting ‘I would stop it.’ I agree with the sheriff on his concerns.”

Gualtieri said Wednesday that he must see the final plan from the police department and the church for limiting spectators before assigning staff. He couldn’t specify how many spectators he’d allow without seeing the plan but he did say that 5,000, which had been floated for the scaled-back event, was still too large.

He stressed that law enforcement was in no way interfering with the Mass inside the cathedral, but that officers had a safety obligation for public spaces similar to how the county’s ordinance outlines social distancing requirements for restaurants and bars.

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“The church doesn’t get a pass for a dive,” Gualtieri said. “This isn’t about being in the church itself ... It’s about carrying out tradition in a safe scenario that allows it.”

He said the church attorney’s comments that the cathedral would work around the sheriff was “an irresponsible statement.”

“I’m the chief law enforcement officer for the county, so you’re not going to work around me,” Gualtieri said.

Kochen also reminded commissioners that such a public event requires participation of an emergency operations team.

“Without the sheriff’s department, this event doesn’t occur,” Kochen said. “If I don’t have deputies up here and I don’t have other chiefs and agencies sending people up here because they’re worried about their people being exposed, I can’t do the event because it becomes a major public safety problem.”

The nearly three-hour discussion drew ire from residents and church members who claimed their religious freedoms were being trampled.

Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis questioned how the police department condoned the recent boat parade and Christmas tree lighting but is limiting gathering at the bayou, saying the police were treating church officials “childlike.”

Cathedral Dean Rev. Fr. Athanasios C. Haros asked the city to trust the church in finalizing the logistics. The bayou waters are blessed by clergy, Haros said, so “when the storms come, everyone remembers that we feel safe because of Epiphany.”

At times the audience grumbled during Kochen’s remarks, prompting commissioner Connor Donovan to defend the chief.

“Just for those of you who booed our police chief earlier tonight, that’s his job, he has a professional duty to come from the safety perspective side of things,” Donovan said. “You may not agree with his specific plan but be mindful of his role in the city. I think he does a darn good job at it and I don’t want to see him disrespected.”

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