TAMPA — When Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne announced plans to hold services again after shuttering the River at Tampa Bay church, he promised an event that would be “off the chain.”
Billed as an “open air mass healing and miracle crusade,” the event called The Stand would feature at least one outdoor service each day at the Pentecostal church’s Tampa campus. The event would begin May 31 and go on for at least a week, with preaching, testimonies and music by the church’s contemporary gospel band.
Howard-Browne has called it “a Holy Ghost Woodstock.”
Fifty-three days later, The Stand is still going and is scheduled to end Aug. 14. For weeks, neighbors have tried to take their own stand against what they consider an ungodly noise penetrating their homes. They say their crusade for relief highlights the need to address county noise regulations that include exemptions for churches.
“We’re being blasted every night by this concert for hours,” said Ryan Haczynski, who lives with his wife Erin in Williams Crossing, a townhome community about a quarter-mile southeast of the church. “I can be in the kitchen making dinner and I hear the low end, the bass and drums, and sometimes the singing.”
Now, more serious concerns have emerged.
Citing the noise complaints and summer thunderstorms, Howard-Browne recently moved the event indoors. Video from inside the sanctuary, live-streamed on Facebook and other platforms, shows scores of congregants standing close together as they sing and pray with uncovered faces.
The images have alarmed neighbors who worry that any coronavirus outbreak in the congregation could spread to the community as a growing number of cases and deaths make the Tampa Bay area a national hot spot. Howard-Browne downplays the threat of the virus, as he has since the pandemic began. He says neighbors who complain about the noise and social distancing practices just want to cause trouble.
During Monday evening’s sermon, he alluded to the exemption churches enjoy from state and local restrictions meant to limit the spread of the disease.
“We are not obligated to wear masks, we are not obligated to social distance, none of that stuff,” Howard-Browne said, drawing cheers and applause from the congregation. “If you’re worried about ‘rona, don’t come. Please stay away. Amen.”
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Howard-Browne made headlines in March when he was arrested after holding two Sunday services despite county orders in place at the time designed to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order shortly afterward allowing churches to meet, but Howard-Browne streamed live from his home for two months instead of holding services at the church campus, 3738 River International Drive. Then he announced plans for The Stand.
The church put artificial turf over the pavement in one of its parking lots and erected a large stage flanked by multiple speaker stacks. Congregants sit on folding chairs under retractable patio umbrellas spaced several feet apart. The evening event starts at 6:30 p.m. and typically lasts more than three hours. The band usually features at least eight members, including a drummer, electric bass and guitar players, a keyboardist and vocalists.
“By the second week, we were like, is this really going to go this long?” said Haczynski, a 44-year-old public high school teacher who serves as president of the homeowners association at Williams Crossing, a 118-unit complex on Williams Road.
Wali Shabazz, who lives with his wife in Williams Crossing, said he had to move to a front bedroom in his townhouse to get some sleep. He said the River does “godly things” for the community but needs to have more respect for neighbors, especially older ones.
“My question is, what would Jesus do?” said Shabazz, 73. “Would he be thoughtful to those who are elderly or would he just spread the word with disregard for your neighbors?”
Dispatch records show the Sheriff’s Office responded to at least half a dozen complaints about noise from the River between May 31 and July 14. The county’s Environmental Protection Commission, which regulates noise pollution, has received at least three complaints, said Reggie Sanford, assistant director for the commission’s Air Division.
“While we are aware of the ongoing concerns of residents who live nearby, this matter is currently being investigated by the Hillsborough County Environment Protection Commission and Code Enforcement,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.
Chronister is familiar with church’s setup. He has attended The Stand twice, most recently on Sunday morning, when he took the stage at Howard-Browne’s invitation to address the congregation.
The environmental commission’s regulations set decibel limits for commercial and residential areas at certain times of day, but there is an exemption for “sounds occurring at places of religious worship and related to those religious activities.”
The county ordinance also exempts sounds associated with religious activities if the sound is “not unreasonably loud to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibility.”
These sorts of exemptions in local ordinances are common, Sanford said. Noise complaints about religious activities are rare in Hillsborough, he said, averaging about one per year.
“In my memory, I have not seen an event go on for this length of time where people were complaining about it,” Sanford said.
When a complaint is lodged, commission representatives contact the church to notify them and offer suggestions for how to mitigate the noise.
That’s what Sanford did June 19 when he visited the River, then sent Haczynski an email chronicling the visit.
Lower the volume, Sanford suggested, install an electronic noise limiting device to restrict the sound from rising above a preset level, point some speakers down toward the ground. He also offered the church free software to help keep the sound from affecting nearby communities.
The River is using decibel meters to keep the noise under the level spelled out in the local regulations, said attorney Mat Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel, the nonprofit legal group that represents Howard-Browne and the church.
“I know they are continuing to see what they can do,” Staver said.
Haczynski said a decibel meter application on his phone shows the River’s music has at times exceeded the 60- to 70-decibel limit spelled out in the regulations.
During public comment at the County Commission meeting July 15, Haczynski told commissioners he supports exemptions for religious activities, “but if the noise will be at this scale, it must be limited in its duration.”
At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Pat Kemp said she wanted to review the ordinance to find a solution to prevent the church from “making life miserable for their neighbors.” Chairman Les Miller told the commission his staff was working on the issue.
The commission should act soon, said longtime Williams Crossing resident Elizabeth Alegria, 48.
“I could see this resurfacing again,” Alegria said. “Are we going to go through this again in six months or a year?”
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The day of the County Commission meeting rainstorms prompted the River’s leaders to move the event indoors. It was the first reprieve for neighbors in 46 days.
The Stand has been inside most nights since then. Video streamed from the sanctuary shows scores of congregants standing close together. Few masks are visible.
The state Department of Health has urged places of worship to follow Centers for Disease Control and Protection guidelines that suggest limiting the size of gatherings and encouraging people to remain at least six feet apart and wear masks. A county order passed June 29 requires people to wear masks in businesses open to the public but does not apply to churches.
The mask exemption for churches is unfortunate, said Dr. Jay Wolfson, a public health expert at the University of South Florida.
The risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, increases the longer a large group of people spend time in close proximity to one another, Wolfson said. The virus spreads in respiratory aerosol that can travel as much as 12 feet and remain in the air for extended periods.
“I understand the pastor’s belief in the power of the will to do certain things, but what if this thing is what scientists say it is?” Wolfson said. “Do I not want to protect my flock as a shepherd in the name of God, given the tools that God has given us?”
But it’s not just the flock. Congregants who contract the disease at church can spread the virus in the community, a fact that neighbors who shop at the same grocery stores say they worry about.
Staver, the attorney, said the church provides space for people to social distance if they choose, and some families and friends come and sit together. He said the church “allows people to make their own decisions.”
During Monday’s sermon, Howard-Browne told the congregation he was thinking about keeping The Stand indoors, at least until the church finishes a “sound wall” to help with noise abatement. He said the church’s sanitizing machines will help protect the congregation.
“Whatever virus is on you is going to get blitzed while you’re sitting here,” he said, “apart from the presence of the Lord.”
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