Tampa Megachurch Draws Hundreds Despite Social Distancing Order, Pastor Defends Holding Service

A Tampa, Florida pastor held a Sunday service attended by hundreds of members of his congregation despite the area being under "safer at home" orders to slow the coronavirus pandemic.

Update: Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office Monday on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health rules after disregarding repeated warnings not to hold the Sunday service.

The River at Tampa Bay Church defended their decision to hold services Sunday for hundreds of worshipers who did not keep at least six feet apart, WTVT-TV a local Fox affiliate reported Monday. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who last month claimed he and other worshippers cleansed Florida of Zika Virus and will do the same to coronavirus, angered local law enforcement and Tampa residents by holding a service which completely rejected federal and state social distancing guidelines. On Monday, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis announced he would sign statewide "safer-at-home" restrictions which were already in place in Hillsborough County when The River Church held Sunday services.

The local sheriff's office obtained an arrest warrant for the pastor after he violated the county order for residents to stay home to curb the coronavirus spread, the Tampa Bay Times reported Monday.

"They are trying to beat me up, you know, over having the church operational. But we are not non-essential," Howard-Browne told attendees Sunday. "This has to be the safest place," Howard-Browne added, according to Orlando Weekly. "If you cannot be saved in church, you in serious trouble."

Rodney Howard-Browne will continue to hold services because his church is the most sterile building in America, as it contains 13 machines that can instantaneously kill any virus: "If they sneeze, it shoots it down at like 100 mph. It'll neutralize it in split seconds." pic.twitter.com/Z5PLFXlPfp

— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) March 27, 2020

Howard-Browne claimed in a YouTube video last week that the church is one of the most sterile buildings in America. He described having 13 machines that can instantly kill any virus or bacteria: "If they sneeze, it shoots it down at like 100 miles-per-hour. It'll neutralize it in a split second."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office issued a statement responding to the church's decision to continue allowing followers inside for worship. The church is also live streaming services. The sheriff's office told WTVT-TV Monday: "[We've] spoken to the leaders at the church regarding their Sunday services that were in direct violation of the president's guidelines for America, recommendations made by the CDC, and orders from the Governor and the Hillsborough County Policy Group."

In a Sunday press conference, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said that a warrant had been issued for Howard-Browne's arrest for "unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second-degree misdemeanors."

"Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first," Chronister said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The sheriff's office expected Howard-Browne to turn himself in later on Sunday to the sheriff's office in neighboring Howard County, where he lives.

Speaking to Orlando Weekly earlier this month, Howard-Browne remained adamant about continuing to hold services: "We are not stopping anything. I've got news for you, this church will never close. The only time the church will close is when the Rapture is taking place," he said.

Flyers distributed by the City of Tampa caution residents against loitering in public places and the government has closed all Tampa Parks & Recreation facilities "until further notice,"

"It should make us all uncomfortable," said John DeBevoise, a pastor at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, to the local Fox affiliate.

About two-thirds of all Florida COVID-19 cases are centered around the Atlantic coast of Florida, particularly in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Newsweek reached out to Howard-Browne for additional comment for this story, but did not hear back by publication time.

tampa florida megachurch pastor
A Tampa, Florida pastor who frequently touts health conspiracy theories held a Sunday service attended by hundreds of members of his congregation despite the area being under "safer at home" orders to slow the coronavirus pandemic. Screenshot: The River at Tampa Bay Church