River Church Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne wasn't anxious about the global coronavirus pandemic, assuring the congregation that the church building has been cleaned and sterilized.
Chronister said his command staff met with The River at Tampa Bay Church leaders about the danger they are putting themselves - and their congregation - in by not maintaining appropriate social distancing, and Howard-Browne went ahead and held the services.
The YouTube video shows dozens of people packed inside the church, shoulder-to-shoulder, not abiding by the six-foot social distancing guidelines set by the CDC, or the safer-at-home order put in place by Hillsborough County.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office issued a statement responding to the church's decision to continue allowing followers inside for worship. The Sheriff's Office had received a tip that Howard-Browne was inviting the congregation to attend, even providing bus service to the church, Chronister said.
The pastor, Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne, is charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. "Our goal is not to stop people from worshiping", said Chronister, "but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first".
"Loving is neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing them by exposing them to this deadly virus", Warren said.
They then went on to say that it would be "wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time". The order also requires residents to stay at home unless they are getting food or medicine, exercising or doing essential work that can not be performed at home.
Howard-Browne isn't yet in custody, but the sheriff believes he will turn himself in soon.
Howard-Browne has claimed that his church is an essential business, and that orders for him to shut down violate his First Amendment rights.
Earlier Monday, State Attorney Andrew Warren announced that an arrest warrant had been issued for Howard-Browne.
On March 18, the church called its ministry an essential service, just like police and firefighters, and said it would keep its doors open despite closure orders.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp tweeted Sunday that "many people" had contacted her about the service and that she had been in touch with Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister. We are working to determine how compliance can be achieved to keep the public safe under these extraordinary conditions, and we hope to resolve this matter quickly. The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body.
Faith groups across the country have canceled services or switched to online-based services, including the 34th Street Church of God in Tampa, whose Bishop Thomas Scott was present in support of the sheriff's actions on Monday.