Hillsborough officials blast Ron DeSantis for exempting religious services in safe-at-home order

The county will now merely recommend social distancing for worshippers.

The Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group unanimously agreed to a new plan for keeping residents and visitors safe in the county — one that significantly rolls back its previous safer-at-home order that is now usurped by a statewide order.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order originally allowed local governments with more restrictive orders in place to keep those going, but hours after issuing that order he updated it to preempt any local orders.

Specifically, DeSantis’ order removes the county’s ability to restrict religious gatherings at churches or any other religious institution.

“The state does not place any limitations on the number of people who can attend religious services nor does it address the six-foot distancing requirement,” said Hillsborough County Attorney Christine Beck during the Thursday meeting.

That means churches like The River of Tampa Bay, whose pastor was arrested this week for violating the county order by hosting two large church services where as many as 500 people might have gathered at a time, can continue filling pews unabated.

“So, our hospitals better get ready,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller opined.

Members of the group, which includes mayors of all three cities in the county, three county commissioners, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and Hillsborough County School Board member Melissa Snively, instead will offer suggestions to churches.

That guidance includes holding services remotely or, at the very least, enforcing the six-foot guideline limiting person-to-person contact.

Later in the day, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren addressed the issue in a video press conference, lobbing particular scorn at DeSantis.

“It’s foolhardy. This is going to end up leading to more people being in places where they don’t need to be. It’s going to lead to the. Spread of COVID-19 outside those houses of worship to people who are going to grocery stores and to visit their doctor and going to pharmacies. This going to lead to more hospitalizations, more out breaks and ultimately more deaths,” Warren said.

He said the order will not affect pending charges for Rodney Howard-Browne, The River of Tampa Bay pastor who was arrested earlier this week.

But it does remove his office’s ability to seek further charges on future violations.

Warren said Howard-Browne did tell his office he planned to cancel services this weekend, but “maybe that’s going to change.”

“Under the Governor’s new order, people can have gatherings of five, 10,000 people, shoulder to shoulder in a cramped warehouse if it’s a religious service,” Warren complained, accusing the Governor of caving to politics rather than protecting public safety.

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected].


  • Larry Gillis

    April 2, 2020 at 5:00 pm

    Why did you bleep out my posted comment? Its language was enthusiastic, I’ll admit, but it was consistent with contemporary community standards and was certainly not obscene or objectionable.

    Who are you afraid of? Do you think your readers are “snowflakes”, who need their eyes and ears protected from gusto ?

    Larry Gillis, Cape Coral

    • Ocean Joe

      April 2, 2020 at 5:26 pm

      I read your comment, it was appropriate. These folks who insist on gatherings ARE dumber than a bag of hammers as you stated. You may be able to sue church leaders if the spread is traceable to their reckless actions, you wont be able to sue the governor because he has sovereign immunity. And who can blame him…afterall he was waiting to hear from Trump before he could decide to order a statewide stay at home order which looks like swiss cheese. We are number 6 in cases, though Louisiana has shot past us with a 42% increase today. I had high hopes for DeSantis, especially after he split with Scott on the environment, but realizing he is taking his lead from Washington is disturbing.

  • Sonja Fitch

    April 2, 2020 at 5:01 pm

    Why is desantis being deliberately indifferent for these folks well being?

  • Michael O'Rourke

    April 2, 2020 at 5:09 pm

    Why is the pastor not acting responsibly?

  • Scottie

    April 3, 2020 at 12:58 am

    Don’t the people of the Republic know their constitutional rights? Maybe Chronister should pen up an apology, drop all charges, and hold a press conference stating so! The Pastor is protected by the 1st Amendment, game over no debate! It’s not about politics, it’s about our freedom that thousands of people died for! If not, The Civil Rights movement would have never happened, and I’m sure some of you would be happy with that too!

    But to help everyone out; the First Amendment gives Americans five basic freedoms: Freedom of speech, press, petition, assembly, and religion.

    • Luke

      April 3, 2020 at 12:30 pm

      Churches should practice social distancing but it’s chilling to see the government selectively close churches while allowing people to storm various stores by the hundreds.

  • Ed V

    April 3, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    Why is Hillsborough County the only county in Florida that is acting like authoritarian tyrants with no understanding of the First Amendment? Dade County was the first in the state to issue a safer at home order and their order stated “This order does not limit the number of persons who may be physically present at any religious service. Persons attending religious services are urged, but are not required, to practice social distancing, such as keeping six feet between persons and limiting group size to less than ten people.” Church services were held all over the state on Sunday and yet only the preacher in Hillsborough was arrested.

    This is an issue of the right to peacefully assemble. While it is not smart to be in a church service, it is not smart to be in Home Depot either yet it is allowed and happening. It is not smart to have a bbq at your house with 20 of your friends either but it is allowed and happening.

    Most people have willingly cooperated in the effort to stop the spread of the virus. Do not mistake that cooperation for the notion that the right to peacefully assemble and the right to the free exercise of religion are rights of convenience or luxury to only be enjoyed during good times.

Comments are closed.


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