DeSantis issued the statewide order Wednesday afternoon, telling Floridians to “limit movements and personal interactions outside the house” to only those deemed “essential.” The order followed mounting pressure on DeSantis to do something after he’d said days earlier that he was waiting for the White House coronavirus task force to recommend such an order. In March, DeSantis had resisted calls to shut down beaches as college students from across the country gathered in Florida for spring break.
If the governor had finally decided to take the threat seriously, his order carved out a large exception for religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and other houses of worship, which are deemed to be “essential business” and thus exempt from the stay-at-home mandate.
Florida has nearly 7,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The actual number of cases in the state and across the country is likely much higher than reported, but a lack of testing and a White House that has repeatedly downplayed the threat have led to insufficient data on just how many people are infected.
DeSantis’ labeling of in-person church services as essential could provide a loophole for Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who was charged with two misdemeanors on Monday after he held services despite a county order not to.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) issued a similar stay-at-home order allowing church services in his state to continue.
The negative effects of gathering for religious services during a pandemic have already been demonstrated by a French megachurch that became a hotspot for the spread of the coronavirus.
“The tipping point was the evangelical gathering in Mulhouse,” France’s health minister, Olivier Véran, told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper. “The epidemic spread across the country from the gathering.”
On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is helping to lead the U.S. response to the deadly outbreak, cautioned against states making many exemptions to their stay-at-home orders.
“I can’t make any official proclamations here, but I can say: Really seriously consider, are those exemptions appropriate when you think about what’s going on?” Fauci said. “And I urge the people of the leadership at the state level to really take a close look at those kinds of decisions.”
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