Tampa megachurch crowded with worshipers, despite social distancing orders

Cheers and applause could be heard on a Tampa megachurch's livestream Sunday from a few hundred people inside The River at Tampa Bay Church. The church is refusing to close its doors despite a "safer at home" order in effect in Hillsborough County meant to slow the spread of coronavirus

"It should make us all uncomfortable," said John DeBevoise, a pastor at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, located in South Tampa.

DeBevoise was among one of the first churches in the Bay Area to move online.

"People should follow the safer-at-home order as a way of not only caring for themselves, but caring for their neighbors," DeBevoise said.

RELATED: COVID-19 cases in Florida skyrocketed more than 900 Sunday to 4,246; 60 deaths

The crowd was an unlikely sight to see and frustrating to many.

"It just seems pretty irresponsible to set up something like that and put all those people at risk," said Jeff Anderson, owner of Classic Touch Cleaners.

Anderson said his company had to adjust to new social-distancing guidelines as a business owner.


The River at Tampa Bay Church held regular services Sunday. A spokesperson for the church told FOX 13 over the phone that social distancing guidelines are in place.

A livestream of the service was available online, but the church still allowed hundreds of members to attend in person.

"They are trying to beat me up, you know, over having the church operational. But we are not non-essential," Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne is heard saying during The River at Tampa Bay Church services.

FOX 13 reached out to the church Sunday, but they declined our request for an interview.


"We feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community," the church said in statement posted to their website.

Pastor Howard-Browne defended his decision to keep the church open in a video posted to his YouTube channel.


"We brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place," Howard-Browne said. "If they sneeze it shoots it down like at 100 miles per hour and it will neutralize it in a split second."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says in a statement that they have "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."


A sign by Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office was seen placed across the street from The River Church in Tampa recommending social distancing practices.

The sheriff's office has advised the church of the dangers they are putting their congregation in by not maintaining proper social distancing.

As of Sunday night, both attorneys for the church and the sheriff's office are in contact to determine how compliance can be acheived to keep the public safe.

If you feel sick:

The Florida Department of Health has opened a COVID-19 Call Center at 1-866-779-6121. Agents will answer questions around the clock. Questions may also be emailed to covid-19@flhealth.gov. Email responses will be sent during call center hours.

LINK: Florida's COVID-19 website

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