74ºF

Pence following through with Texas visit to Dallas church as pandemic rages

photo

Vice President Mike Pence during a campaign event in Dallas in 2018. Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Vice President Mike Pence is moving forward with a trip to Texas on Sunday as the state rushes to respond to a coronavirus surge.

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."

The briefing in Washington came just a few hours after Gov. Greg 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.

Pence's office confirmed he will still speak Sunday at First Baptist, though additional details were not immediately available about what else he may do during the trip to survey the coronavirus situation. Birx said at the briefing that part of the reason Pence asked her to accompany him to the hotspot states is to "not only meet with state and local health officials but to meet with the community groups" as well.

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.

It remains to be seen how large the First Baptist event will be and what precautions the church is taking coronavirus cases increase. A church spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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."