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DeSantis Amends Stay-at-Home Order To Supersede Local Rules, Allows For Religious Gatherings

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis amended late Wednesday his executive order directing Floridians statewide to stay at home, effectively superseding local orders that were already in place with stricter guidelines. 

However, DeSantis clarified during a press conference Thursday that a local government can go beyond the order to enforce stricter measures, but the state order is the minimum.

“We have the baseline, but if folks want to do more, they can do more in certain situations,” DeSantis said. “Each area in Florida is very distinct and will approach the issue differently. We’re willing to work with them.”

At the heart of the issue is whether Floridians should be attending church. DeSantis’ order allows for religious groups and churches to gather and continue as an “essential” service, but the governor said this can be done while maintaining social distancing.

“I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church,” DeSantis said. “I’m certainly not going to do that.”

With religious holidays and holy days coming up, the governor said people are going to need their church, especially now.

“I think in times like this, the service they’re performing is going to be important for people, especially when you have difficult circumstances,” he said. “So, do it right, make sure that you’re following the mission. I think particularly coming up on the Easter season, people are going to want to have access to religious services.”

Florida state attorney Andrew Warren, of the 13th Judicial Court, responded during an online press conference Thursday to the governor’s order about continuing religious services: “I thought it was an April Fool’s joke.”

On Monday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office arrested Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who held two Sunday services at The River at Tampa Bay Church, a Christian megachurch with a large congregation. At the time, Hillsborough County had strict quarantine orders limiting religious gatherings to 10 people.

The Sheriff’s Office charged the pastor with two misdemeanor charges, including unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders. Howard-Browne posted the $500 bail within 30 minutes of his arrest. The case is still pending, but under the statewide order, it’s possible for Howard-Browne to hold services again — legally.

“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds in his congregation at risk, and thousands who interact with them in danger,” the sheriff said at a press conference on Monday. 

From the Facebook video of the service, attendees can be seen sitting side-by-side in theater seating.  

“Do you trust [God] with your life?” Howard-Browne asked the audience at the Sunday service. “Therefore your life is not going to be cut off early, you’re not going to be taken out by some stupid bug.”

Warren fears that the reversal of the order will only lead to more death from COVID-19, even if unintentional. 

“I can’t understand why the Governor is using his power to remove safeguards,” Warren said. “That is going to undermine the work that Floridians have done over the past few weeks to flatten the curve.”

Warren said in a statement that he will continue to encourage Hillsborough residents to continue to follow local social distancing orders. 

Hillsborough County has 440 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Friday at 1 p.m.

Alachua County commissioners are already working to adopt some of the county’s preexisting coronavirus measures into general law.

“The good thing is that the governor put in an order statewide, and the list of essential businesses is something that we also support,” Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, county commission chair, said.  “But unfortunately, the governor left out a number of important things.”

Hutchinson said that commissioners are working to adopt OSHA’s guidelines for protecting workers during a pandemic into Alachua’s Human Rights Ordinance.

The second amendment that will likely be added to the ordinance makes it illegal in Alachua for workers to be told they cannot wear protective equipment like gloves and masks, he said.

Alachua County commissioners will formally discuss the amendments to the Human Rights Ordinance on April 14, but Hutchinson plans to put in place a separate emergency order with these provisions until that date.

“The efficacy of masks and gloves, I think, is now incontrovertible,” Hutchinson said.

About Kristen Altus

Kristen is a web editor and reporter for WUFT News. She can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing kaltus@ufl.edu. Follow her on social media @kristenaltus.

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