Days after a Tampa pastor was arrested for holding a mass congregation, the state Governor exempted churches from his stay-at-home directive.
As the Coronavirus epidemic rages on in the United States, several state governments have issued directives to stay at home. This means local businesses and other places where large gatherings typically occur have been ordered to shut. Most recently, the government of Florida released a stay-at-home order. While most businesses - apart from "essential services" - have been therefore shut down, churches and other places of worship have been allowed to stay open, Bloomberg reports. Apparently, they fall under essential services. At a time when the only things slowing down the spread of the deadly COVID-19 are self-isolation and social distancing, the directive has been viewed as rather shortsighted.
Several states have been tackling the issue of whether religious services fall under the umbrella of what is essential. Of course, grocery stores and pharmacies must remain open, but the same cannot be said about churches and other places of worship (at least so easily). The directive was issued only a few days after a Florida pastor was arrested for holding mass congregations on several occasions despite numerous reminders to withhold his activities. Rodney Howard-Browne, a pastor based in Tampa, claimed he had "no option" but to hold church services in the midst of the outbreak.
"I knew this was going to happen," the pastor said in an interview with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. "But we have forced a national debate on the First Amendment. It’s not about a virus, it’s about the church being [an] essential service to the community." Unfortunately, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis clearly agrees with him. Shrugging off criticism that has been flooding in for weeks now, the Governor carved out an exception for all religious congregations, following the lead of states like Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
The directive he issued will go into effect on Friday this week. Governor DeSantis said that he believed in taking only incremental steps rather than utilizing a sweeping "blunt instrument." He argued that public health conditions varied widely across the state, which is home to 21.5 million American citizens. Therefore, the stay-at-home order is supposed to remain flexible enough to cater to all areas and populations. However, critics have argued that allowing churches to remain open will only hasten the spread of Coronavirus instead of "flattening the curve." In order for social distancing, quarantine periods, and self-isolation to truly work, everyone must, as the order suggests, stay at home as much as possible. The directive only makes it easier to flout those guidelines.
Thankfully, specific wording in the executive order could ensure any religious congregations are limited to 10 people or fewer. As per the directive, "A social gathering in a public space is not an essential activity. Local jurisdictions shall ensure that groups of people greater than 10 are not permitted to congregate in any public space." This could suggest church services would have to remain small and allow for social distancing. Could this be a way to balance religious rights while effectively combatting a public health crisis? Most people don't think so. Taking to Twitter, critics of the order voiced their concerns. One user asked, "Wasn't the major spread of the virus in South Korea linked to [a] large church?" Another noted, "Sometimes the trash takes itself out." One joked, "'Death be with you!' 'And also with YOU!'" Perhaps it is time for Governor DeSantis to listen to the critics and ensure his residents' health and safety.