Despite coronavirus concerns, worshippers gather at Orlando church under statewide exemption

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Standing on stage in front of a green “welcome” screen, Pastor Rich Vera preached to a crowd gathered on Palm Sunday at The Center Arena in Orlando.

Many worship centers in Central Florida have been live-streaming or pre-recording religious services during the last few weeks in response to social distancing guidelines meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

But Vera has kept the church on south Hiawassee Road open since before Gov. Ron DeSantis and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings each issued a stay at home order that exempted religious services.

“This is not a time to hide, this is not a time to chicken out and this is not a time to listen to online sermons only,” Vera told a crowd Sunday morning. “This is a time to gather together in his presence.”

It was unclear how many people gathered at the church’s 10:30 a.m. service, which also was streamed on Facebook Live, but Vera referenced an overflow room and offered to meet anyone at their vehicles in the parking lot.

The Orlando Sentinel observed a crowd of 40 people gathered at the 6 p.m. service.

Attendees were encouraged to greet each other with a wave and only worshippers who were related sat close together, Vera said.

“Just in case some Christians are freaking out, we are keeping social distancing,” he said during the 90-minute service that included frequent messages on the screen urging viewers to “Give Now” through the church’s PayPal and Cash App accounts.

An average of 150 people watched the church’s morning livestream on Facebook. Some viewers criticized Vera for gathering in a large group during a pandemic. Orange County officials said the number of coronavirus cases won’t reach its peak in the region until the beginning of May.

Noting the negative comments on social media, Vera responded during his sermon — “mind your own business.”

Last Sunday, concern over the worship service prompted a call to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. The agency said a deputy responded to the church but did not write a report.

“The leaders of the church met with a deputy and said they want to be available to parishioners and are doing what they can to ensure social distancing,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

Religious exemptions have been both controversial and patchwork in Florida before DeSantis’ order. Hillsborough County had banned all gatherings, including religious ones, to 10 people or less and the county sheriff’s office had arrested a mega church pastor on March 30 for violating the county order.

A Hillsborough County statement Thursday was critical of DeSantis’ order, saying it “supersedes conflicting local action.”

DeSantis said in a news conference Thursday, “I don’t think government has the authority to close churches, and I’m certainly not going to do that.” He added Florida religious leaders he’d spoken with “almost 100% agree” with mandating social distancing policies.

But during Sunday’s morning service, Vera prayed over several people seeking healing. One man, with his arms raised, said he needed help for his chronic back pain.

Vera’s hands were sprayed with a sanitizer before he tapped the man’s palms and then smacked his forehead, causing the man to fall back into the waiting arms of a church staffer.

“The pain is no longer,” the man told Vera, moving his torso from side to side.

“The pain will never come back again,” Vera said.


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