A Florida pastor was arrested on Monday for holding services at a Tampa megachurch in violation of a public health order prohibiting large gatherings to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was charged with misdemeanor counts of unlawful assembly and violation of the public health rules, according to Fox 13, Tampa Bay’s local affiliate.
Howard-Browne’s apprehension came after he held two Sunday services with up to 500 attendees, even offering bus service to the church.
“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, who issued an arrest warrant earlier Monday.
Despite social distancing measures to curb person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus, the River at Tampa Bay Church announced earlier this month that it intended to remain open to comfort those in need, even as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose across the country.
“In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty. We expect hospitals to have their doors open 24/7 to receive and treat patients. We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty,” the church said in a statement.
The River at Tampa Bay Church was one of several regional churches that drew hundreds of worshipers recently despite bans on public gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier in March, a Louisiana church held a service attended by about 300 people despite a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D). The Rev. Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in East Baton Rouge Parish said at the time that the virus was “not a concern.”
President Trump last week said during a Fox News town hall at the White House that he would “love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” describing his April 12 target date as a “beautiful timeline” and adding that he hoped to see “packed pews.”
But Trump reversed course on Sunday, announcing the White House would keep its guidelines for social distancing in place through the end of April to try to blunt the spread of the coronavirus.
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