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Hillsborough County offers guidance, not mandate, on religious ceremonies

Gov. Ron DeSantis rendered the county’s more restrictive order moot.

Hillsborough County officially shared its guidelines for religious gatherings Friday morning after a statewide order removed its ability to do anything but make recommendations.

The Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group unanimously agreed Thursday 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.

“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.

The new recommendations, which cannot be legally enforced, include three tips.

The first suggests all houses of worship, regardless of denomination, host religious services “online or through other communication technology whenever possible until the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus has passed.”

If a religious organization does host in-person services, the county recommends those include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines of limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer or providing at least six-feet of space between individuals.

The third recommendation includes all residents and says to “leave your home only when absolutely necessary.”

The recommendations come after Gov. Ron DeSantis quietly amended his original safe-at-home order to preempt all local COVID-19 orders in conflict with his own.

That means his order, which went into effect first thing Friday, overrules the county’s own order, which allowed law enforcement to enforce social distancing guidelines with fines and/or arrest.

That was the case earlier this week with River of Tampa Bay church pastor Rodney Howard-Browne who was arrested for hosting two services with hundreds of partitioners at his Brandon megachurch Sunday.

Howard-Browne now faces two misdemeanor charges for violating the county order, but now under the Governor’s order, no such remedies apply.

Howard-Browne has said he won’t host services this weekend, but hasn’t ruled out Easter services.

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

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 Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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