Tampa Bay pastor arrested, accused of violating social distancing guidelines amid coronavirus pandemic

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A Tampa Bay area pastor has been arrested following two large services at his church over the weekend.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister says he has made the decision Sunday night to seek an arrest warrant against the pastor of River at Tampa Bay Church for violating social distancing guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The sheriff confirmed in a tweet Monday afternoon that Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne had been arrested.

Sheriff Chronister says Howard-Browne “repeatedly” violated social distancing orders from the president, CDC and local authorities.

“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,” the sheriff said.

According to Sheriff Chronister, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has been in contact with leaders at the church since last Friday. The sheriff says his office received a tip that the church pastor was refusing to stop holding large services and was instead encouraging his congregation to meet in person at the church.

Chronister added that the church has the capability to stream the services online and on TV to people at home but instead encouraged people to attend the church services. He says the church even provided bus transportation to two large services on Sunday.

The pastor will be charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules. Both charges are second-degree misdemeanors.

8 On Your Side went by the River at Tampa Bay Church Sunday night and saw car after car pull into the parking lot. Church leaders kept their doors open for worship after deputies contact them regarding the large crowds at services in the morning.

ORIGINAL STORY:

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – As President Donald Trump announced his administration is extending guidelines on social distancing until April 30, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office was looking into a Tampa Bay church that is not following the recommended measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has spoken with leaders at The River at Tampa Bay Church regarding Sunday’s services that were held in direct violation of the president’s guidelines for America, recommendations made by the CDC, and orders from the governor and the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group,” deputies said in a statement Sunday night.

Car after car pulled into The River at Tampa Bay Church parking lot Sunday night. Church leaders kept their doors open for worship after deputies contacted them over the large crowds at services in the morning.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne defended that decision in a Facebook live post titled “End of Days Part Three.”

“I’m not again negating that people are dying from the coronavirus,” he said. “We’re not saying that, just saying that the thing is blown totally way out of proportion and if you shut the church down, the church is not a non-essential service.”

In a statement to the press from March 18, the church Facebook page posted that it “will do everything in our power to support the efforts of our wider community by cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and take any other recommended measures to protect our people and keep them healthy and safe.”

On the road leading to the church, deputies put up a traffic sign that reads, “Practice social distancing and stay six feet apart, maximum 10 people per room.”

“The sheriff’s office has advised church leaders of the danger they are putting themselves and their congregation in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing at a time when COVID-19 cases are, unfortunately, still on the rise in Hillsborough County,” deputies said.

Many religious institutions are holding prayer services online during the pandemic, such as Hyde Park United Methodist.

“Our outreach is to the whole world,” Vicki Walker, minister of missions and outreach said. “God gave us brains, and we’re invited to use them, and it’s an act faith in good conscience for Christians to worship together online, not in public.”

The Hillsborough County “Safer-at-Home” order approved last week and an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis limits faith gatherings to less than 10 people.

HSCO’s attorneys are talking with attorneys for the church to come up with a resolution to “keep the public safe under these extraordinary conditions,” the statement from deputies said.  

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