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Can Houses Of Worship Still Gather? Hillsborough Leaders Ponder While Extending State Of Emergency

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Shortly after Hillsborough officials met, Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke from Tallahassee, saying he believes the government does not have the power to shut down any house of worship.

Hillsborough's Emergency Policy Group on Thursday extended the county's state of emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak for another week.

But there was some confusion about how their rules extend to houses of worship, after Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed the issue after their meeting.

Shortly after Hillsborough officials met, Gov. DeSantis spoke from Tallahassee, saying he believes the government does not have the power to shut down any house of worship.

He instead asked that those that would rather not stream their services online and meet in person practice social distancing guidelines and keep congregants at least six feet away from each other during services.

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Before DeSantis spoke, Hillsborough County Attorney Christine Beck told members of the group the governor's new statewide stay-at-home order doesn't put any limitations on the number of people attending religious services. The county's order does - which resulted in a pastor being arrested after holding packed services Sunday.

Beck said her interpretation of the state's preemption rules mean state law takes precedent over local rules.

Beck said she’s seen published reports that different localities are taking different interpretations of that order.

"We can probably all see how we would take a different interpretation," Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said. "I mean, it makes no sense. The one thing that's shown to flatten the curve is the distance separation, so I would hope that wasn't the intent of the governor's order."

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County Commissioner Chair Les Miller said he also hoped that wasn’t the intent of the governor’s office.  Miller mentioned Albany, Ga., where large outbreaks occurred after two funerals were held.

"If we get no more clarification from the governor's office, that these religions institutions - if they're going to open their doors for services - use the best possible judgment that they can in saying stay six feet apart. Please stay six feet apart," Miller said. "That's the only thing we can see that will flatten that curve. But what I'm seeing here now, that curve in Hillsborough County and the state is not going to be flat anytime soon."

So County Commissioner Sandra Murman made a motion that the group adopted to “suggest” separation guidelines for all houses of worship.

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Also, Douglas Holt, director of the Hillsborough County Department of Health, told the group  there are now 372 cases of COVID-19 in Hillsborough County. The cases are now doubling every six days. A week ago, the county was seeing an average of 15 new cases a day. They're now up to 30.

Hillsborough County has gotten another 1,000 testing kits for COVID-19, making for a total of about 2,000 kits. The county will continue to do drive-up testing for those who qualify at Raymond James Stadium through Friday, and again next week Monday through Wednesday.

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