UPDATE: Howard-Browne has now been arrested for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both are second-degree misdemeanors, punishable up to 60 days in jail, with a maximum fine of $500.
Despite stay-at-home orders from local and state officials, evangelical pastor Rodney Howard-Browne did exactly what he said he was going to do for the past two weeks and held a packed service at his Tampa megachurch last Sunday, potentially exposing thousands of his followers to coronavirus.
Now, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is involved.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office sent a statement to leaders at The River Tampa Bay Church Sunday evening after a livestream of the service showed a packed congregation with people standing shoulder to shoulder.
“The Sheriff’s Office has advised church leaders of the danger they are putting themselves and their congregation in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing at a time when COVID-19 cases are unfortunately still on the rise in Hillsborough County,” reads the statement.
“Attorneys for the church are in direct contact with HCSO attorneys. We are working to determine how compliance can be achieved to keep the public safe under these extraordinary conditions, and we hope to resolve this matter quickly.”
In the livestream, Howard-Browne can be seen defending his decision to fill his church, telling his congregation that he deserves to be open because local liquor stores are open, and that more people have died from the flu. "You're going to get coronavirus somewhere else, not here," said Howard-Browne.
Authorities did not say whether the church will continue holding services, even though the livestream video shows the church violating the county and state's orders requiring gatherings be fewer than 10 people.
Violations of this order are considered a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail, with a maximum fine of $500 or both, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Since March 17 the conservative pastor and diehard Trump-supporter has said his church is an “essential service” and that his church will not shut down. "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,” said Howard-Browne.
Last week, Howard-Browne claimed his church was “the most sterile building in America,” welcoming his congregation into his building this weekend. “The Lord has helped us to secure our congregation,” says Howard-Browne. “We brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place, and uh, if somebody walks through the door it’s like, it kills everything on them. If they sneeze, it shoots it down at like 100 mph. It'll neutralize it in split seconds. We have the sterile building in, I don’t know, all of America.”
During the livestream, Howard-Browne would not elaborate on his "machines," saying "I'm not at liberty to give details about the machines."
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