The pastor ignored them, proceeding with the services at the River at Tampa Bay Church and even providing bus transportation for members who needed a ride.
On Monday, Sheriff Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County said he had obtained an arrest warrant for Howard-Browne for “intentionally and repeatedly” defying emergency orders mandating that people maintain social distance and stay at home.
“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger,” Chronister, who is a Republican, said at a news conference in Tampa. “Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshipping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.”
Howard-Browne, 58, who lives in Hernando County, turned himself in Monday afternoon. He was booked in jail and freed 40 minutes later after posting a $500 bail. He faces two second-degree misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules.
Florida is the second-largest state in the country, after Texas, with no statewide order requiring people to stay at home, leaving in place a hodgepodge of restrictions that have allowed many Floridians to maintain a semblance of normal life. Local authorities have frequently cited the lack of a state mandate as reason to urge — rather than require — residents to take precautions. The coronavirus poses a unique threat to the state, with its large older population and millions of visitors.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said Monday that he would sign an order codifying local rules urging people to remain indoors, but only in Southeast Florida, from Key West to West Palm Beach, the most densely populated stretch of the state where many restrictions were already in place. The region accounts for about 60% of Florida’s nearly 5,500 coronavirus cases, DeSantis said.
He has blamed some of the contagion on travelers from New York and Louisiana fleeing hot zones there and ordered those visitors to quarantine. Florida has closed restaurants except for takeout and delivery, urged people 65 or older to stay home, suspended vacation rentals and taken other steps, but it has not ordered a statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses or beaches.
The editorial boards of local newspapers have clamored for the governor to take bolder action. Physicians in Southwest Florida who are worried about hospitals becoming overwhelmed have asked Collier and Lee counties, home to Naples and Fort Myers, to shutter nonessential businesses and order people to remain at home. County commissioners have refused to go that far without guidance from the governor.
Wildly different approaches by local officials have prompted outrage, especially online. While the city of Jacksonville, in Duval County, shut down its beaches, St. Johns County to the south did not. A striking aerial photo over the weekend showed bare beaches on one side of the county line and crowded sand on the other. (St. Johns County later closed its shoreline.)
“It’s really rather scary, because my neighbors aren’t really paying attention — and I live in an elderly community,” said Vicki Stanbury, 59, of Boynton Beach, a city in Palm Beach County. She said she was aghast to see people packed inside Walmart and Publix over the weekend without any apparent attention to social distancing.
“There was a little strip mall — Pet Supermarket, open. AT&T store, closed. Post office, open. Laundry center, open. Beauty school, closed. GNC, closed. Panera Bread, open,” she said. “I would like to hear the message that this is really serious: ‘Stay home, do not go out. Do not go to religious services. Do not be wandering around Atlantic Avenue with 15 of your friends. Do not go down by the beaches.’ ”
Democrats have called on the governor, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, but he has insisted on what he calls a “tailored” approach.
That allowed Hillsborough County to order that people stay at home — and it was that local order Howard-Browne defied, even as religious services of all kinds have been canceled across the country, or moved online.
The pastor had claimed the First Amendment protected him from having to follow the order. Andrew Warren, the state attorney for Hillsborough County, said emergency orders “are constitutional and valid” and apply to everyone.
“I’d remind the good pastor of Mark 12:31, which says there is no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself,” said Warren, a Democrat. “Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”
Video of the Sunday morning service showed members of the congregation standing close together, even as Howard-Browne claimed that social distancing rules were in place.
“I know that they’re trying to beat me up for having the church operational, but we are not a nonessential service,” he told parishioners. “Suddenly we are demonized because we believe that God heals, that the Lord sets people free, and they make us out to be some kook.”
Liberty Counsel, an organization whose lawyers frequently defend the religious right, said it would represent Howard-Browne. The group, which noted that church staff wore gloves Sunday and provided hand sanitizer, called the local orders flawed.
“The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body,” Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s chairman, said in a statement. “Contrary to Sheriff Chronister’s allegation that Pastor Howard-Browne was ‘reckless,’ the actions of Hillsborough County and the Hernando County sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings.”
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Earlier this month, Howard-Browne, who has been at the White House and prayed over Trump, had encouraged his parishioners to greet one another despite public health warnings against shaking hands: “This Bible School is open because we are raising revivalists, not pansies,” he said March 15.
Chronister said that lawyers from his office and the county attorney’s office, responding to an anonymous tip, had advised the church’s legal team Friday that holding services would violate the law. Members of the sheriff’s command staff went to the church in person Sunday to try to dissuade Howard-Browne. He would not meet with them, the sheriff said, and held services in the morning and evening.
“They have access to technology allowing them to livestream their services over the internet and broadcast television for more than their 4,000 members to watch from the safety of their own homes,” Chronister said. “Instead, they encouraged people to come and gather at church.”
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Other area churches, including the 34th Street Church of God, a nondenominational church in Tampa, have shut their doors and moved their services to livestream, the Rev. Thomas Scott said at the news conference.
“We value the importance of the laws of the land, and we value the importance of social distancing,” he said. “And more importantly, protecting our parishioners to make sure that they’re not in harm’s way.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .