Hillsborough County, Florida sheriff’s deputies arrested Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of the River at Tampa Bay Church, for refusing to stop holding church services that attracted huge crowds in violation of a county health order, CNN reported on Monday.
County authorities have ordered residents to “stay at home as much as possible twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week” due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, except for essential outings such as going to grocery and hardware stores, exercise, and medical appointments. All non-essential services that cannot maintain six feet of social distancing or more have been ordered to close, and churches are not on the list. Howard-Browne’s services, which county authorities said included crowds of up to 500 people this past weekend, were in violation of a prohibition on large gatherings. The Tampa Bay Times reported that the pastor had continued to bus in worshipers this past weekend.
According to CNN, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said that Howard-Browne has been charged with two second-degree misdemeanors, unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency. The sheriff said he and lawyers for the sheriff’s office had repeatedly asked Howard-Browne to close the church and that the pastor “did not make himself available” when police arrived on Monday.
“Because of the reckless disregard of public safety and after repeated requests and warnings, I worked with our state attorney, Andrew Warren, to obtain a warrant for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanors,” Chronister told reporters, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.”
Howard-Browne, an evangelical Christian leader and Donald Trump supporter, has characterized those remaining at home as “pansies.” During his services, he has spread right-wing conspiracy theories about the “phantom plague,” such as that the coronavirus was created by the Chinese government in collaboration with the media (with this operation somehow simultaneously being “run by the communists” as well as to benefit a global “money cartel”).
“It’s all the deep state traitors that have surrounded our president on every side that are feeding him misinformation,” Howard-Browne said during services earlier this month, according to Right Wing Watch. “We are probably looking at a globalist take down of America as we speak… Because America would not buy into the climate change, melting polar caps nonsense... Through this pandemic, the World Health Organization is coming in basically as medical tyranny, and they’re taking over and producing an international standard for law that governs countries.”
Florida has become a coronavirus hotspot with nearly 5,600 confirmed cases and 63 deaths, according to the John Hopkins University of Medicine tracker. Republican state Governor Ron DeSantis delayed imposing stay at home orders in recent weeks and allowed crowds to flood beaches, bars, restaurants, and other businesses, almost certainly to mirror Trump’s downplaying of the nationwide outbreak.
DeSantis has instead ordered police to screen for drivers from heavily afflicted states at the Florida border and has only reluctantly put in place a weaker “safer at home” order in Southeast Florida, which itself only came after many counties and municipalities in the region had already ordered their own restrictions. There is no statewide shelter in place order, though members of the state’s congressional delegation urged DeSantis to impose one last week.
“There was a little strip mall — Pet Supermarket, open,”59-year-old Vicki Stanbury of Boynton Beach told the New York Times. “AT&T store, closed. Post office, open. Laundry center, open. Beauty school, closed. G.N.C., closed. Panera Bread, open. 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.’”
Hospitals across the country are running low on essential medical supplies like personal protective equipment and ventilators. One trauma physician at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital told CNN, “We are slowly descending into chaos.”
According to the Washington Post, Howard-Browne has posted bail and his legal firm, Liberty Counsel, has argued that the county health order “has so many exceptions it looks like Swiss cheese.” They also claimed the church has an air purification system, uses hand sanitizer, and complies with social distancing requirements, though both video footage of services and first-hand accounts by deputies show crowds of people not maintaining six feet of distance.
“It’s unfortunate here that the pastor is hiding behind the First Amendment,” State Attorney Andrew H. Warren told reporters on Monday, per CNN. He added the order was “constitutionally valid.”