For over a week, Pence has been scheduled to speak at First Baptist Dallas, a church led by Pastor Robert Jeffress, an enthusiastic supporter of President Donald Trump. But the coronavirus situation in Texas has deteriorated quickly in recent days, and Pence indicated Friday that his Texas visit will at least partially focus on the outbreak now.
Pence, who chairs the White House coronavirus task force, said during a briefing that he will bring another task force member, Dr. Deborah Birx, to Texas on Sunday as part of a tour of hotspot states "to get a ground report." Pence's office announced later Friday that Pence will meet with Gov. Greg Abbott and his "healthcare team" following the church appearance.
The briefing in Washington came just a few hours after Abbott announced his most significant action yet to address the growing outbreak in Texas, closing bars and reducing restaurant capacity to 50%, among other things. Pence said Abbott was among the governors that he has spoken to in the last 12 hours.
Texas was one of the states the task force highlighted during the meeting as a site of a concerning outbreak. Birx noted that testing has been going up in the state, but the rise in positivity rate — the ratio of cases to tests — is what showed "this was becoming an alert." The seven-day average of that rate hit 11.76% on Wednesday, exceeding the 10% threshold that Abbott had identified as cause for alarm. That rate's seven-day average is now nearing its record high of 13.86% set in April.
Dallas, which Pence is visiting Sunday, has been particularly hard hit by the virus. The county judge, Clay Jenkins, said Friday morning the county will report another record high of daily new cases — 496 — later Friday.
At First Baptist, Pence is participating in an event billed as "Celebrate Freedom Sunday." The church says it will feature an "annual fireworks celebration, patriotic music and a special message" from Pence. The church has also said Pence will be joined by Abbott and U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn will also join Pence in Dallas, according to a Cornyn spokesperson.
It remains to be seen how large the First Baptist event will be. The church says on its website that there will be temperature screenings at the door, and no one whose temperature is over 100.4 degrees will be allowed to remain on the premises. Masks and social distancing are "strongly encouraged," according to the website.
Speaking during a Texas Democratic Party conference call Friday morning, Jenkins said he understands Pence will appear as part of a "large indoor event." The county has "tried to confer with [the church] about best practices" for Sunday, Jenkins added.
There is currently no occupancy limit for religious services in Texas, though it is unclear if the First Baptist event fits that category. In any case, Jenkins noted Texas is still asking people to generally avoid gathering in groups of 10 or more and that Abbott banned outdoor gatherings of over 100 people unless local officials approve.
“If they have to do it, I hope they do it outside, and if they do it outside, I hope they keep it to less than 100 people,” Jenkins said, “and that’s not really safe, but they have a right do it.”