Hillsong Family church wades into mask-wearing dispute in Florida after pastor, wife get coronavirus

Andrew Gard and his wife, Christina, are lead pastors of Grace City Church in Lakeland, Florida.
Andrew Gard and his wife, Christina, are lead pastors of Grace City Church in Lakeland, Florida. | Facebook/Grace City Church

Grace City Church, a fast-growing Hillsong Family church in Lakeland, Florida, waded into the divisive issue of mask-wearing in Florida Sunday when it announced that it would ask members to wear masks after the church’s husband and wife team of lead pastors revealed they had been infected with the new coronavirus.

During an online service Sunday, the pastors of the church, Andrew Gard and his wife Christina, confirmed their “mild” infection with COVID-19. The confirmation came after they gathered for the first time in person since the lockdown began for a church prayer night on June 14.

Gard said he and his wife chose to get tested due to "some potential exposure."

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In-person weekend services were scheduled to resume last weekend but as a result of their infection with the virus, the pastors said they were pausing that plan until July 12 when they would ask churchgoers to wear masks during services.

“We’re excited to come back and gather again and when we do come back, just want to encourage you we’re going to be creating as safe of an environment as possible. We probably are going to be asking people to wear masks. We’re going to be encouraging that, asking people to do that so that we don’t have to shut down once we open back up because three fourths of our staff get it or something like that,” Gard said.

Gard’s comments on the masks came after he asked the church to pray for Lakeland’s health officials and political leaders, including founding church member Lakeland Mayor William “Bill” Mutz whose proposal to have residents wear masks indoors in the wake of rising coronavirus infections in Florida, did not get enough support from local politicians last week.

“Let’s be praying right now for our city. I know Central Florida, Polk County and Lakeland are experiencing a little bit of a surge in this regard so let’s be praying for our city, let’s be praying for our medical professionals, let’s be praying for Mayor Mutz who goes to our church, and our city council members some of who go to our church,” Gard said.

Florida reported a one-day record of 9,585 positive coronavirus cases Saturday and as of Tuesday had at least 146,333 cases, according to a New York Times database, and at least 3,446 deaths from the virus. Polk County, which includes Lakeland, reached a one-day high of 213 cases last Friday, then reported 404 new positive tests Saturday for a total of 3,182 overall cases and at least 92 deaths.

Amid rising numbers, a mandate to require face masks in Lakeland proposed by Mutz failed to make it to a vote a week ago, according to ABC Action News.

“I am disappointed that we didn’t even get enough interest to get a vote on the topic,” Mutz opined after the vote.

"So there is no motion to accept the executive order, and we will not do a mask mandate. The result of that will be in the numbers."

The mandate was rejected despite presentations made to city commissioners by Danielle Dummond, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Lakeland Regional Health, and Dr. Steven Achinger of Watson Clinic, who both recommended the wearing of masks.

"The more masks that we have being worn in a public space, the safer that public space is. No question," Dr. Archinger said, noting that masks are the most cost-effective way of keeping the local economy open safely.

Dummond also noted to commissioners that the LRH had seen an increase in ventilator use, and of the 50 ICU beds available, 48 are currently in use and 30 are COVID-19 patients.

Two days after his mask mandate was rejected by Lakeland officials, Mutz continued to share his disapproval about the decision in a message on his Facebook page from a local pastor.

“I so appreciate the POWER of balancing this perspective during life's more challenging moments: Do unto others and wearing a mask . . . Denial is one of the disastrous traits of this mess. Some believe that if you ignore it, it doesn’t exist. Still, others believe that if it helps you get what you want, then any behavior is acceptable,” he began.

“Community is not built on self-serving attitudes, instead, on shared responsibility. I suppose the logic of someone saying, ‘making me wear a mask is taking away my rights,’ is akin to saying, ‘telling me not to drive drunk is taking away my rights.’ When you consider individual or collective rights, on one end is anarchy. On the other end is authoritarianism. There is a balance between these two. I happen to believe that the golden rule, which exists in virtually every culture, is what we are losing. ‘Treat others as you would have them treat you.’ The modern vernacular would read, ‘Don’t infect others as you don’t want them to infect you.’”

The issue of mask-wearing in Florida has divided Republican leaders in the state over whether it should be a choice or mandate. Some places like TampaSt. Petersburg and Hillsborough County have passed mandates that require masks to be worn indoors. In Jacksonville, where the Republican National Convention is expected to take place in August, Republican Mayor Lenny Curry has made it mandatory to wear a mask in indoor public spaces. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said, however, that he won’t stand in the way of local rules regarding masks while simultaneously suggesting that policing facial-wear would “backfire.”

Many Florida residents have been captured on video fiercely opposing wearing masks during the pandemic while invoking God, the devil, the U.S. Constitution and claims of communism.

"They want to throw God's wonderful breathing system out the door," Sylvia Ball said during a recent public comment session with the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners.

"All of you are practicing the devil's law," another woman identified as Cristina, who promised a citizen's arrest for those who are going against the "freedom of choice," noted. "Every single one of you that are obeying the devil's laws are going to be arrested."

Gard in his comments to his congregants Sunday urged them to pray for a “sound mind” to prevail as well as grace for those in leadership.

“Let’s be praying that God would give us all just a sound mind and that we would make the best decisions possible. I also really want to encourage us as a church, let’s have grace for people that are making difficult decisions. The thing that I’ve always wanted to be, I want to be the kind of person just extending grace when people are in difficult positions and high positions of leadership. And so please. Let’s be Grace City,” he said.

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