DALLAS — Vice President Mike Pence peeled off his White House-branded mask and smiled at a crowd of thousands Sunday morning. Yet he wasn’t technically headlining a political rally — he was at church in a state that has seen a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases.
Pence was in Texas to discuss the deepening crisis with Gov. Greg Abbott, but first, he stopped off at First Baptist Church Dallas, a massive complex led by Pastor Robert Jeffress, a dedicated Trump supporter, to headline the Celebrate Freedom rally. At the event — a patriotic jamboree that was part worship, part pre-Fourth of July celebration — Pence preached a message of hope to the congregants, framing the fight against COVID-19 as grounded in liberation.
“We will put the health of the people of the Lone Star State first, and every single day we will continue to reclaim our freedom and our way of life,” said Pence, who also said that “during these times, we’d do well to remember that the foundation of America is freedom, but the foundation of freedom is faith.”
Speaking for nearly a half-hour about patriotism and faith, Pence also touched on the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police, and the recent push to remove Confederate statues.
“We all know the tragic events of recent days, and let me say there’s no excuse for what happened to George Floyd,” said Pence. “There’s also no excuse for rioting, looting and violence that ensued. Burning churches is not protest. Tearing down statues is not free speech.”
Church services have been part of one of the most contentious debates amid the spread of the coronavirus, juxtaposing freedom of worship with public health.
President Trump has been vocal in his support of churches reopening, even as health experts have cautioned that gathering a large number of people in an enclosed space could risk new outbreaks. Already, a recent outbreak in West Virginia has been tied to churches.
Singing during religious services may enhance that risk, by spreading respiratory droplets even further.
Yet in Dallas, those warnings did not appear to concern those in attendance.
Over 2,000 attendees, the majority — but not all — in masks, sat shoulder to shoulder in the long lines of pews that packed the church. A full orchestra blared American classics such as “Yankee Doodle,” and the choir members, who numbered more than 100, belted out the national anthem and other patriotic songs.
Pence’s church visit came as Abbott continues to roll back the state’s reopening amid a resurgence of the virus. Texas recorded more than 25,000 new coronavirus cases last week, and the positivity rate for lab tests, a key measure of spread, rose to more than 11 percent after dipping below 5 percent in May.
Abbott responded by closing bars and instructing restaurants to return to 50 percent capacity.
Members of the Trump administration have continued to insist the U.S. has made progress in combating the virus, while expressing concern about the rising cases nationally. Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, told CNN on Sunday that “the window is closing for us to take action and get this under control.”
Azar urged that critical reversals must happen at the local level. “The window is closing. We have to act, and people and individuals need to act responsibly,” he reiterated on NBC.
Abbott echoed those concerns in a joint Sunday press conference with Pence and members of the White House coronavirus task force. “COVID-19 has taken a very swift and very dangerous turn in Texas over just the past two weeks,” Abbott said.
The governor pushed wearing face coverings when possible, as well as hand sanitizing and social distancing as tools Texas can use to attempt to lower positive cases.
“If you don’t need to get out, there’s no reason to go out at this particular time,” Abbott said. “If you can keep your distance from others, that’s a very good, safe place to be.”
Kate Bedingfield, Joe Biden’s deputy campaign manager, claimed that Pence’s Dallas trip “epitomizes the dismissive attitude this administration has taken in addressing this crisis from the onset.”
“Our leaders should be tackling this pandemic head on and laying out concrete recovery plans for the American people — not jet setting around the country to hold events that go against basic public health guidance,” wrote Bedingfield.
The Biden campaign has not held an in-person rally since coronavirus cases locked down the U.S., and Biden has made limited public appearances in Pennsylvania and his home state of Delaware.
Last week, Dallas County saw the single greatest increase of COVID-19 cases since the outbreak began. One of the main coronavirus transmission mitigation efforts has been the mandating of face coverings.
Even so, the wearing of masks has become the latest partisan culture war, with recent polling showing that Republicans are less likely to wear face coverings than Democrats nationally. Attendees of the Trump campaign’s first rally in months were not required to wear marks. Trump has only been photographed in a mask once, leading to criticism that mixed guidance is coming from the very top.
At the Dallas press conference, Pence demurred when asked if the White House should be more public and forceful in its support of mask wearing, instead asserting that since he is the head of the coronavirus task force the administration “is promoting the practice” of mask wearing.
“For anyone, if you can’t maintain social distancing, it’s just a good idea to wear a mask,” said Pence.
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