As coronavirus cases in Texas surge, Vice President Mike Pence spoke on Sunday at an indoor service at a Dallas megachurch. Gov. Greg Abbott, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, and Sen. John Cornyn, and joined the vice president at First Baptist Dallas for an event dubbed Celebrate Freedom Sunday.
Pastor Robert Jeffress, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, called the event “our annual patriotic service” in which his church celebrates “God’s unique blessings on our country.” As of Friday, 2,200 people were expected to worship inside the main sanctuary, with between 1,500 and 2,000 people in overflow rooms across the church’s six-block campus in downtown Dallas. Jeffress told a local news channel that the church would take worshipers’ temperatures and strongly encouraged masks and social distancing.
Have a good time this morning at First Baptist Dallas Church. The wonderful Pastor @robertjeffress will be joined by our GREAT @VP Mike Pence!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2020
Jeffress, an evangelical preacher and Fox News regular, has acted as an informal faith advisor to Trump. He also has a long history of trumpeting racist and homophobic views. In a March sermon entitled, “Is the Coronavirus a Judgement from God?”, he cautioned 90,000 online viewers that while the coronavirus is not mentioned in the Book of Revelation, “All natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin.”
Pence’s visit to Texas comes as the state is experiencing a post-reopening wave of the coronavirus. Two months ago, Gov. Abbott announced one of the nation’s earliest and quickest reopening plans. But the past two weeks saw record hospitalization rates, with local officials considering using convention centers and stadiums for overflow capacity. In total, there have been around 150,000 COVID-19 cases and 2,400 deaths in Texas.
On Friday, Abbott reversed course on his reopening plan, shutting bars back down, scaling back restaurant capacity to 50 percent, and prohibiting outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people unless local officials approved. “At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” he said in a press release. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”
Abbott’s order on Friday exempted churches and other houses of worship, where there is no occupancy limit.