Can You Really Face Criminal Penalties for Violating the COVID-19 Lockdown?
On Monday, Florida sheriff’s deputies arrested Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for hosting church services. The services were held despite the official public orders urging residents to stay at home and avoid public gatherings due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was adamant that church services must remain open, and he was arrested for unlawful assembly and public orders violations.
The move by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office sparked controversies regarding both the arrest and the public orders. While remaining indoors, practicing social distancing, and staying under lockdown to keep the outbreak in check are necessary, an arrest that follows violations of those orders is still questioned by many. Can you really face criminal penalties for violating the COVID-19 lockdown?
Florida: A Battleground
Florida is one of the most severely affected states following the outbreak of COVID-19. There have been more than 5,200 confirmed cases and more than 60 deaths so far, but these numbers only represent the beginning of a more serious contagion. As mass gatherings are still seen across the state, the infection rate across Florida is rising rapidly.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister took drastic steps in stopping church services for the right reasons. Violation of the health emergency rules is too risky at a time like this. The arrest was based on two counts, which are the aforementioned violation of health emergency rules and unlawful assembly.
“His reckless disregard for human life puts hundreds of people in his congregation at risk,” according to Chronister. The pastor was arrested in his home neighborhood of Hernando County and was soon processed. Florida took extra precautions, but the case immediately became public because it involves a church.
Two Sides of the Story
Many in the community, including other pastors and legal experts, are starting to comment that the case has been blown out of proportion. Facts about the church services hosted by Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne were said to have followed the administrative order about social gatherings and health recommendations.
The church services were held while maintaining six-foot distancing. The church also went above and beyond in ensuring the safety of attendees, including by providing hand sanitizers and making sure that the area used for service is properly disinfected. This led to allegations that the Hillsborough Country and the Hernando County Sheriff went too far.
Personal Rights Under Protection
The debate now is between religious freedom and recklessness, but the real solution isn’t to prioritize one or the other. Freedom is important, but a balance between personal freedom and public rights needs to be found.
“In a time of crisis, the church is a place that people turn to. Protecting people’s right to pray and find comfort is important,” according to Ambrosio Rodriguez, attorney and founder of The Rodriguez Law Group. Other pastors in the community – and across the country – also support this statement.
The fate of Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne remains to be seen. Until now, Pastor Howard-Browne has been unavailable for comments. A statement from his lawyer stated that they will continue to pursue justice in this matter.