Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has overruled local counties’ power to ban large religious gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, carving out an extraordinary loophole that officials say will violate social distancing guidelines and ensure further spread of the virus.
By allowing religious services to continue, DeSantis is seemingly siding with religious leaders who’ve stood against the federally mandated guidelines—including controversial Tampa pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who refused to stop holding services because he believed his church had machines that could stop the virus.
After weeks of political pressure and public outcry, the Republican governor signed a “stay-at-home” order Wednesday to curtail the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. But, unlike most mandates implemented in dozens of states, DeSantis ruled that religious services were an “essential activity.”
DeSantis originally resisted a “stay-at-home” order but said he had a change of heart after President Donald Trump extended national social distancing guidelines—which limit social gatherings to 10—and expressed grave concerns about the severity of a pandemic that has killed at least 5,300 Americans.
Some counties had already implemented their own orders, like Hillsborough County, where Sheriff Chad Chronister had issued misdemeanors to Howard-Brown for violating an order against large gatherings.
However, in a clarifying memo on Thursday, DeSantis said his order “shall supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.”
“Our hospitals better get ready,” Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller said on Thursday, according to WFLA. “That’s all I’m gonna say.”
The Sunshine State has scrambled to combat over 7,773 positive cases of coronavirus and 100 deaths less than a month after the first known infection in the state.
The statewide order, which goes into effect on Friday, requires all Floridians to remain indoors and “limit personal interactions outside the house” unless “to obtain essential services” or “conduct essential activities.”
“This thing is really nasty. It’s something that’s caused a lot of harm to a lot of people, and I think that we need to have all levers going,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “We don’t know how all these measures are going to work. But we’ll figure out on the back end how this will work out.”
The measure lists several “essential activities” residents are permitted to do during the 30-day lockdown, including solitary exercising, taking care of pets, and “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues, and houses of worship.”
The order bans any gatherings above 10 people not considered “essential activity” and gives local law enforcement the authority to take criminal action if residents don’t comply. “A social gathering in a public space is not an essential activity,” the order states.
DeSantis defended his controversial decision on Thursday to continue religious services, stating in a press conference that the “government does not have the authority to close a church” and saying he met with religious leaders and felt that “their work is important.”
“There is no reason why you can’t do a church service six feet apart,” he said. “In times like this, I think the service that they are performing is going to be very important to people... particularly coming up in the Easter season.”
When asked about his second executive order that overrides local governments, DeSantis said he thought it was understood that his stay-at-home decision was going to be the newest guideline but said he is “happy to work” with officials to make sure everyone is safe.
“[Local governments] can go beyond what I’ve done...What we’re doing is setting a floor,” he said. “And they can’t go below the floor.”
Despite Howard-Brown’s church, The River at Tampa Bay, now technically being an “essential activity,” the pastor, an ally of Trump, canceled his upcoming service on Wednesday, stating that he made the choice to “protect the congregation—not from the virus but from the tyrannical government.”
In a Thursday statement, Howard-Browne said DeSantis’ decision to make religious services “essential” showed that county orders violated the U.S. Constitution’s freedom of religion.
“We did not hold church to defy any order; nor did we hold church to send a political message,” he said, stating he maintained his decision to close down his church doors this week. “We did not hold church for self-promotion or financial motives, as some have wrongly accused. We held church because it is our mission to save souls and help people, and because we in good faith did everything possible to comply with the executive order.”
Tampa Mayor Jane Caster said Wednesday that it was reckless for Howard-Brown to hold services.
“So, what occurred at The River Church on Sunday, it was not allowable then and it's not allowable today, and it's not allowable Sunday either," Castor said in a Facebook Live. "It was a very reckless decision on the part of that pastor, and we are able to have more stringent regulations than the state's order."
On Thursday, Caster had only one thing to say about DeSantis’ decision to override local restrictions and continue in-person services: “It makes no sense.”
Florida is not the only state to allow religious services to continue despite the ongoing pandemic that the White House believes will claim between 100,000-200,000 lives at best. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine issued a similar order to allow church services to continue while in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has ruled religious services that adhere to social distancing as “essential.” Michigan and Kansas also have similar religious exceptions.
“We appreciate the difficulty that these public health orders pose for all of us, including those who find solace in religious services during such challenging times,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church, said in a statement. “But this virus doesn’t discriminate—it endangers people whether they gather for religious or secular purposes, and it puts entire communities at risk.”