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‘Swift & dangerous’: VP Pence visits Texas as Gov. Abbott grapples with virus spike

DALLAS, Texas — Both Vice President Mike Pence and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged Sunday that there has been a rapid rise in the number of coronavirus cases in the state in recent weeks after Abbott begin allowing businesses to start reopening in early May.

“Covid 19 has taken a very swift and very dangerous turn in Texas over just the past few weeks,” said Abbott, who on Friday again shut down bars and limited restaurant dining, after Texas reported record high new cases.

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Pence praised Abbott for his decisions both to reopen the state, then to roll back the reopening plans.

“You flattened the curve here in Texas... but about two weeks ago something changed” and the number of positive confirmed cases have risen from about 2,000 cases a day to more than 5,000 a day. “With the development of these new cases, we’re grateful, Governor, you’ve taken the steps you’ve taken,” Pence said.

Pence, during a trip to Dallas on Sunday, promised Texas would bounce back from a recent surge in cases while also urging Americans to turn to their faith during a tumultuous period for the nation.

"Working with your governor, we will put the health of the people of the Lone Star State first, and every single day we'll continue to reclaim our freedom and our way of life, as each day we are one day closer to the day we put this pandemic in the past," Pence said during an event at First Baptist Church in Dallas. "And when we do, with this governor and this president, we'll bring Texas and America back bigger and better than ever before."

After the event, Pence — who chairs the White House Coronavirus Task Force — met with Gov. Greg Abbott about the dire coronavirus situation in Texas.

Pence encouraged the wearing of face coverings in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

“Wear a mask, where ever it’s indicated or where ever you’re not able to practice the kind of social distancing that would prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” said Pence, who along with Abbott wore face masks as they entered and left the room, taking them off while speaking to reporters.

The talk was a last-minute addition to Pence's agenda. For over a week, the vice president had been scheduled to appear at First Baptist for its annual Celebrate Freedom Sunday, but he added the meeting with Abbott in recent days as the state confronted its worst week yet for the pandemic.

The number of hospitalizations due to the virus has reached new highs every day for the past 16 days in Texas.

The positivity rate — the ratio of tests that come back positive —has also spiked. The rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has reached 13.23%, which is nearly as high as it was in mid-April when it hit an all-time high of 13.86%.

In his remarks at First Baptist, which lasted for about half an hour, Pence thanked Abbott "for his courageous and compassionate leadership for the people of Texas during this challenging time."

U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson, who rode along with Pence from Washington D.C., along with Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, also addressed the church and urged resilience rooted in "self-sufficiency" against the virus.

"We must learn to dominate the virus and not let the virus dominate us," Carson said.

Pence's trip also coincided with a growing debate in Texas over requiring people to wear masks. Abbott has resisted calls to fine individuals who do not wear masks but has allowed local governments to order businesses to require customers to do so.

Pence, Cornyn and Carson all had face coverings on when they disembarked Air Force Two in Dallas on Sunday, as did their three greeters: Abbott, state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and state Attorney General Ken Paxton. All appeared to remain masked while seated at the church.

Pence has made headlines for not wearing a face covering at other public appearances during the pandemic. President Donald Trump has also refused to wear a mask in front of cameras.

First Baptist Church Dallas, led by pastor and ardent Trump supporter Robert Jeffress, had "strongly encouraged" attendees to wear masks and also socially distance. But the video of the ceremony showed most attendees sitting close together in pews, with only some donning masks. Most of the over 100 people in the choir and band sections on the stage were not wearing masks.

The church did not release any information about how many people it expected for the event, but ABC affiliate WFAA had reported prior to the event that the church would operate at "70% capacity, which equates to about 2,200 people inside the main sanctuary" where Pence spoke. While Abbott has tightened restrictions on some gatherings amid the coronavirus surge, he has not imposed occupancy limits on religious services, deeming them essential activities.

The campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, released a statement about Pence's trip that said it "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 across the country to hold events that go against basic public health guidance," said the statement from Biden's deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield. "Families in the Lone Star state and across the country deserve better.”

There were ample political overtones to Pence's speech as he touted the Trump administration's first-term achievements, particularly for Christians. He also drew attention to the "strong support of the two senators from Texas" — Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans — "who have stood with this president every step of the way." But he singled out Cornyn, who is up for re-election in November, praising his "principled conservative leadership for our judiciary and our nation."

Introducing Pence, the First Baptist pastor, Jeffress, hailed Trump as the "most resilient, the most courageous, the most faith-friendly president in the history of America." He similarly lavished praise on Pence, telling him that many Christians would like to see him in the Oval Office after Trump leaves.

Taking the stage, Pence thanked Jeffress for his "overly generous introduction."

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