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ALACHUA County – Whether issued at the national, state, or local level, social distancing and COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have had a profound effect on the public’s daily lives.  The religious community has been impacted especially hard as congregational gatherings are a bedrock of worship and fellowship.

On April 1, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a sweeping "stay-at-home" order that went into effect for the entire state at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, April 3. A number of Florida counties, including Alachua, had already released their own “stay at home” directives in the preceding weeks to try and slow the rapid increase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CDC and medical experts from around the world had found promising results from stay home orders and one third of the world is now on lockdown. While many U.S. states had also initiated social distancing regulations, to be effective it meant closing non-essential businesses and any gatherings over 10 people. The federal government issued these recommendations, but did not made it mandatory and left the final decision up to the individual states.  This resulted in varying results, often initiated by local county governments.

Nationwide, President Trump avoided making it a federal directive, concerned about the effect on the economy and taking into account the differences in state conditions and circumstances, left the decision at the state level.  With over 6.5 million unemployment claims from lost jobs, for many governors there was little choice. Without a cohesive plan, travel by individuals and group gatherings continued the spread.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis had tried to avoid making the same decision. Florida's economy takes much of its revenue from tourism and recreation, and the governor allowed beaches, tourist locations and hotels to continue business, while tracking locations and sources of COVID-19 cases, and leaving the matter in the hands of local officials. But both the staggering economic downturn and spread of the virus prompted some counties to set their own regulations.

The Alachua County Commission took matters into their own hands and ordered a “Stay-In-Place” order for the entire county on March 23. This also closed all non-essential businesses, including restaurants and bars and limited gatherings, including church services to 10 people in a building and a separation distance of six feet. The exception was for essential businesses such as grocery and large hardware and equipment stores to 50 people at one time. However, the county had no control over state parks or boat traffic gatherings on the rivers.

As more counties set limits and pressured the governor to issue a statewide limit, COVID-19 infections continued to rise, surpassing 10,000 statewide, driven by a rapid increase at tourist spots in south Florida. Governor DeSantis closed travel to Florida hoping to stem the rise.  But by March 31, the number of cases had increased to 6,995 with 890 hospitalizations and 85 deaths.  It was clear that more stringent measures were needed.

The governor issued a statewide “stay-at-home” order effective at 12:01 a.m. on April 3, 2020. Executive Order 20-91 required all persons in Florida to limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities. This order allowed for a variety of essential activities, which included attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and house of worship regardless if the religious activity exceeded the 10 or fewer individuals that some counties had enforced for all gatherings.

Governor DeSantis stated he did not feel the state had authority to limit religious freedoms or how religious institutions handled their congregations. Several Florida megachurches had already deified local restrictions and held mass gatherings including a church in Hillsborough County that bused in worshipers for services of over 500 people.

Local churches in Alachua are as concerned about the safety of their congregation as they are about providing services, striving to balance the need to conduct sermons, offer guidance and maintain a sense of unity.

Most had already found alternative ways to conduct services prior to Executive Order 20-91 and the apparent reversal of Alachua County’s 10-person limit. Many local churches are offering online services and sermons using Facebook, YouTube, Zoom, or already established church websites. Many of these are interactive so parishioners can offer their participation as well.

A few smaller churches without web or internet service are offering individual counseling and guidance by email. At least two larger churches, Impact Family Church in High Springs and Alachua First Baptist, have found a unique solution to maintaining the health requirements for their congregations while also still providing the sense of unity and fellowship for members.

They have adopted the concept of the iconic drive-in movie theaters.  Parishioners gather in the church parking lot or field, but stay in their cars to maintain a safe distance, while the pastor broadcasts the sermon via a pre-set radio signal, allowing the congregation to worship safely together.

Most local churches have links on their websites to access or download their online or pre- recorded weekly services for anyone who is interested or needs a place to worship and pray in this uncertain time.

All plan to return to live services as soon as it is safe to do so and the “stay-at-home” sanctions are lifted. In these trying times, prayer and religious solace are needed for many people and the local churches are striving to make sure they provide that while keeping their parishioners safe.

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