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Hillsborough Co. gives guidelines for religious services amid coronavirus pandemic

Posted at 9:24 AM, Apr 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-03 17:50:26-04

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — One day after Governor Ron DeSantis declared attending religious services as an essential activity, Hillsborough County has released its own guidelines for religious organizations.

RELATED: Gov. DeSantis says churches shouldn't be forced to close during 'safer-at-home' order, state attorney says that will 'put lives at risk'

In a press conference Thursday, the governor implied that the government closing churches would be unconstitutional, saying "we can't start ripping up the constitution."

He said people need religious services now more than ever, and suggested as long as churches, synagogues and houses of worship were adhering to guidelines, holding services online or in person and at least six feet apart, it wouldn't be a problem.

RECOMMENDED: The difference between 'Safer at Home' and 'Stay at Home' orders

The order received backlash from some, and Hillsborough County's Emergency Policy Group has released guidelines to help religious institutions be safe in this coronaviru climate:

To promote the safety and well-being of all people, public health experts recommend that all large gatherings, including religious services, be conducted online or through other communication technology whenever possible until the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus has passed.

Those who choose to attend religious services in-person should follow the public health and safety guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. This includes providing at least 6 feet of space between attendees and avoiding gathering in groups larger than 10 people.

By remaining at home whenever possible, and following the CDC guidelines, you can help stop the spread of the virus among your congregation, your friends, and your neighbors.

Leave your home only when absolutely necessary, limit gatherings to 10 people, and provide 6 feet of space between individuals.

The county said it sent the recommendations to 187 faith based organizations, and the joint information center would share further.

"I’m a very religious type person we all know to flatten the curve we have to have distancing and it is safer at home so that’s a contradiction to the title of the whole executive order," said EPG member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller. "So I’m glad that he did it, I’m disappointed with what he put in it."

Miller said he hopes people listen.

"Hillsborough County numbers are going up every day. People are dying and my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones. A very close friend of mine for years lost her sister in law yesterday. It’s a sad situation. So we put those guidelines in place to say even though we can’t supersede the governor’s order please please please if you’re going to do this adhere to what we’re suggesting," he said.

Some churches have already altered services to follow distancing guidelines.

"I don’t look at it as mandating and pushing churches what to do I see it more as we’re just being good neighbors and we’re going to keep people safe and we’re going to operate within that. Our mission is way bigger than meeting on Sunday morning," said Pastor Mike Grover with Fellowship Baptist Church in Thonotosassa.

The church has already been broadcasting services online, but for Easter Sunday, Grover said they plan to offer a drive-in service where people can park on property but stay in their cars.

"We can love God apart from that gathering and loving our neighbor I’m not sure we can do that when we put people in a place of danger," he said.

Other churches have already offered drive-in services, like Life Family Church in Plant City

"We have 10 people or less that are out they all have surgical gloves on and some of them have masks on," said Pastor Jack Myers. "So I’m ministering from a platform we have our praise team on the platform that are 6 ft. apart and once the praise team is finished they too are required to go to their cars."

He said the governor's order doesn't change their plans. In fact, they hope to use a low band radio transmitter to help soon.

"Every pastor has to live their own convictions we want to stay with the first amendment the constitution but we also want to follow the regulations that are being applied to society," Myers said.

The suggestions were sent the same day the governor's state-wide order took effect and one week after Hillsborough County leaders own version of a safer at home order had kicked in.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said it's received more than 100 calls of reports of violations of the Safer-at-Home order in Hillsborough County. Deputies are continuing to educate the public on CDC social distancing guidelines.