Chad Chronister confirmed on Monday afternoon that Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne had been arrested.
“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger,” the sheriff said.
The River at Tampa Bay Church held two services on Sunday, despite a county order for residents to stay at home, and warnings from the sheriff’s office to both Pastor Howard-Browne and church attorneys.
Sheriff Chronister said that the church has the ability to livestream services but still encouraged people to show up in person, even laying on buses for some of the congregation.
Sunday’s livestream showed a large number of worshippers present while the church band played and Mr Howard-Browne preached. Some appeared to have left seats open between them in a nod towards social distancing practices.
“Because of the reckless disregard of public safety and after repeated requests and warnings, I worked with our state attorney, Andrew Warren, to obtain a warrant for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanours,” Sheriff Chronister said.
“Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshipping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.”
In a lengthy statement on its Facebook page, the church describes itself as an essential service and “a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty.”
“Therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time.”
Hillsborough County’s social distancing order prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people — including those held by faith-based organisations — as well as requiring people to stay home unless they are going to buy food or medicine, or perform essential work.
A second-degree misdemeanour is punishable by up to 60 days in jail, a maximum fine of $500 or both, though it is likely that a first offence will only carry a warning or fine.
Mr Howard-Browne lives in a neighbouring county to his church and was taken into custody on Monday afternoon by the Hernando County Sheriff’s office.
At the announcement of Mr Howard-Browne’s arrest, the Tampa Bay Times reports that state attorney Warren quoted from the Bible: “I’d remind the good pastor of Mark 12.31, which said there’s no more important commandment than to love thy neighbour as thyself. Loving your neighbours is protecting them, not jeopardising their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”
Earlier in March, Mr Howard-Browne said at another service that his church would only close for the rapture and that the advice being given about coronavirus was for “pansies.”