Florida governor exempts worshiping from rules; many religious leaders say, ‘Stay home’

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MIAMI — The archbishop of the largest Catholic archdiocese in Florida has told parishioners there will be no services during Holy Week. Leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities across the state have pleaded with their communities to not allow relatives to travel to Florida for Passover. The pastor of a Hillsborough County mega-church who was arrested for holding services last weekend in violation of a local stay-home order has decided to stay home — for now.

Despite that, Gov. Ron DeSantis made the executive decision to allow religious groups to gather. The decision has drawn criticism from some and created dilemmas for others who believe in the healing power of shared worship but worry that closeness won’t also breed harm from the novel coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19.

“It is not prudent for parishes to plan any activity that would encourage people to leave their homes,” wrote Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the archbishop of the Miami diocese, in a statement that was delivered to his priests Wednesday morning.

He ordered them not to conduct any drive-by confessions, no palm pickups in front of church for Palm Sunday, no confession or Holy Communion and no masses on Easter Sunday.

Unlike the archbishop, however, DeSantis refrained from discouraging congregations from gathering and instead simply said that if they gather they should do it in a way that allows the faithful to keep their distance.

“The goal is to reduce contacts with people outside the home,” DeSantis said at an in-person press conference Thursday in the Capitol. “It’s less important what you do as how you do it.”

He said local governments can’t shut down a church “but coming up in the Easter season, I think people are going to want to have access.”

“There’s no reason why you can’t do a church service with people 6 feet apart,” he said.

Floridians are otherwise forbidden by DeSantis’ order to gather in groups of 10 or more for any other purpose and are instructed to practice social distancing at all times, even while engaging with essential functions like grocery shopping or visiting a pharmacy.

After weeks of resisting calls for a stay-home order in Florida, as partying spring breakers became a national symbol of what not to do, DeSantis announced Wednesday that all non-essential businesses and services would be suspended until the end of April.

The order was patterned after the emergency order imposed by Miami-Dade County on March 19, in which the county urged people to stay home. But, because of the First Amendment, which protects people’s right to assemble to practice their religion, the county did not prohibit them from gathering.

“This order does not limit the number of persons who may be physically present at any religious service,” the Miami-Dade order read. “Persons attending religious services are urged, but are not required, to practice social distancing, such as keeping 6 feet between persons and limiting group size to less than 10 people.”

By contrast, the governor’s order offered less guidance. It simply said that “essential activities” include: “Attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship.”

Across the nation, headlines have recorded the deadly toll the virus has taken on well-intentioned congregations in other states.

More than 50 members of a church choir in Mount Vernon, Wash., have tested positive for COVID-19, and two died after a choir rehearsal became what epidemiologists call a “super-spreading event,” in which a small group of contagious people infect dozens of others.

The public health department in Sacramento County, Calif., which has 172 cases, posted this warning on Tuesday: “Approximately one-third of the confirmed cases in Sacramento County are linked to gatherings related to churches. Sacramento County is urging all residents, from all faiths and all backgrounds to stay home.”

And in Albany, Ga., a family funeral has led to more than 24 deaths and 600 cases as a rural community has become home to one of the most intense clusters of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

April 8 is the first day of Passover, the eight-day Jewish holiday. And next week corresponds with the holiest week in Christianity, leading up to Easter Sunday. So the exception for churches has many worried.

Rabbi Yossi Harlig, director and spiritual leader of the Chabad Center of Kendall said he hopes that despite the importance of these holidays, people will gather with just immediate family.

“I have families in New York and Brooklyn, and I see what’s happening there with so many lives being lost,” he said. “I continue to tell our congregants that people should not congregate and everyone should remain in their home.

“Saving a life is the most import thing in the Jewish religion, so rabbis across the world are very strongly opinionated about this,” he added. “Based on all studies, separation and isolation would slow it down. Saving one person’s life is saving the world.”

The Rev. Canon John Tidy of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, said his diocese has told congregations “that we remain closed for in-person worship to at least the 15th of May,” funerals have to be put on hold, and people should tune into the live-streaming of services their churches are offering.

“I’m glad the governor may have finally woken up,” he said. “But the mayors had figured this out long before.”

Miami Beach, for example, ordered places of worship to close their doors. In Hillsborough and Osceola counties, officials issued stay-home orders that did not exempt churches and religious organizations.

But tension mounted when the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne filled his Pentecostal megachurch with hundreds of worshipers during two church services on Sunday. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister obtained an arrest warrant accusing Howard-Browne of unlawful assembly and violation of public safety rules, both misdemeanors.

Howard-Browne was booked and released on bail the next day and by Thursday had arranged for the Liberty Counsel to prepare a federal lawsuit alleging the county had violated his First Amendment rights.

“They are enforcing this unequally,” said Mat Staver, his lawyer. “We have express constitutional rights and we get arrested, but if you go to Home Depot, where you don’t have an express constitutional right to sell potted plants and picture frames with no six-foot separation, you get a free pass.”

By Thursday, the county reversed course and, following the example of other counties and the governor, listed religious services as “essential activities.”

“At this point, we believe it is prudent to take a pause by not opening the church doors this Sunday. This will allow an opportunity for people to take a deep breath and calm down,” said Howard-Browne, the pastor of the River at Tampa Bay Church in Riverview in a statement Thursday. He added that because of the publicity, “vitriol and death threats have been directed at us and the church.”

But he said he hasn’t made a decision about whether to conduct services on Easter Sunday.

“No matter your view on this matter, I encourage you to take a step back and reconsider the options.”

Tidy, of the Episcopal diocese, calls the dilemma “a delicate balance.”

“Our first responsibility is for the health and safety of individuals,” he said. “If people want to exercise their First Amendment right, they are free to do so, but one has to be mindful of the safety and public welfare of individuals and the wider community. Yes, you can observe sitting six feet apart but there is no point in putting anybody at unnecessary risk because what has become very clear is that we have no idea who is carrying it.”

In Miami, where the number of cases continue to climb, elected officials were critical of the governor’s decision to allow religious services without more restrictions..

U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, a Democrat, said the state’s exemption for religious services is “inappropriate and scary.”

Democratic state Rep. Nicholas Duran said he has talked to local faith leaders about how to conduct religious services remotely. He said his office plans to help religious leaders set up online services and that the state exemption is a bad idea.

“When I read that exception in there I was scratching my head,” Duran said. “It’s already known that mass gatherings simply aren’t feasible. I think most (religious leaders) will look at that and say, ‘I can do better.’”

Andrew Nichols, executive director of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, said his church has found comfort in creative innovation. It has live-streamed Sunday and Wednesday services and reached out personally to every member of the 1,500-member congregation.

“People, especially this time of year, are looking to their faith for hope,” he said. “We’re finding that a lot of people who never would have dreamed of watching a service on TV are engaged. We are making the best of it.”


(McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.)


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