Washington – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence would not be deterred.
His press secretary, Katie Miller, had tested positive for the new coronavirus early Friday. Air Force Two sat on the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews outside Washington later in the morning, engines running, as six aides who’d been in contact with Miller left to be tested for infection and sent home to quarantine.
Reporters and some staff still aboard weren’t immediately told the reason for the delay. After an hour, the plane took off for a scheduled trip to Iowa, where Pence would nudge churches to carefully resume in-person services and hear concerns from farmers worried they’ll lose everything to the economic collapse from the outbreak.
During the flight, one White House staffer expressed surprise that Pence was pressing ahead. The plane’s passengers included Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who’s 86 — elderly and male, a cohort highly vulnerable to the virus.
But the administration of President Donald Trump is pressing Americans to resume their social and economic lives even in the face of the world’s largest publicly reported outbreak of the lethal virus.
Pence’s trip was intended to signal that Americans should consider resuming work and worship, and feel confident in their food supply, even though the largely rural state, population 3.1 million, has had more cases of the disease than South Korea and its 51 million people.
Pence received a warm reception from Iowa’s Republicans. The state’s governor, Kim Reynolds — who visited the White House two days earlier to discuss outbreaks in the meatpacking industry — has said that “we must learn to live with COVID virus activity without letting it govern our lives.”
Reynolds said in an interview at the White House on Wednesday that coronavirus cases are rising in Iowa because of “aggressive testing.” The rate of growth has slowed, she said, with the number of cases doubling in 12 days instead of eight, and the percent of positive tests declining.
But the state’s Democrats were appalled that Pence didn’t call off his trip.
“Iowa’s COVID-19 numbers are on the rise, and we have recently been one of the worst states in the nation for spreading this disease,” more than a dozen of Iowa’s Democratic elected officials said in a statement. “We need you to lead by example, and practice social distancing instead of traveling here and encouraging us to put our families and neighbors in danger.”
Everywhere he went in Iowa, Pence projected relentless optimism. Polls show that Republicans are less concerned about the outbreak than Democrats and less likely to engage in recommended social distancing practices, including wearing masks in public.
In that, they’re following the lead of their elected leaders. Pence was criticized for not wearing a mask while visiting the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on April 28, and Trump declined to cover his face during a recent tour of a Honeywell mask factory in Arizona.
Pence’s first stop on Friday was Westkirk Presbyterian Church in Urbandale. “It is good to be in the House of the Lord,” the evangelical vice president remarked to nine faith leaders seated several feet from one another in the church’s pews.
“The fact is that, for most healthy Americans, the risks that the coronavirus poses remains very low,” Pence said. He thanked the seven evangelical Christian leaders, one Catholic bishop and one rabbi gathered at the church “for your determination to thoughtfully and carefully step forward back into the exercise of your faith.”
The rabbi, David Kaufman of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, told Pence that in-person worship was “inadvisable at the moment.” Much of Iowa’s Jewish community is 70 or older, and many already have medical issues, he said.
“We are pretty much in the position of uniformly believing that it’s too early to return to personal worship,” Kaufman told Pence. “Especially with rising case counts in the communities in which most of our congregations are across the state.”
Kaufman said they would consider reopening when there are more advances toward a vaccine, and when antibody testing that can tell if people have already been infected by the virus is more widely available.
But Terry Amann of Church of the Way in Des Moines said his services would resume on May 17. The church will arrange seating so that households are together, he said, and will offer wipes, hand sanitizer and other measures to prevent infection.
“We need to get back to church,” he said. “There’s not an eradication of the pandemic, which means there’s risk. But there’s risk everywhere.”
Pence’s staff had taken pains to conceal Miller’s identity as the infected aide. But at about 1:28 p.m., as Pence was meeting with the religious leaders, Trump told reporters at the White House that the vice president’s “press person,” or “Katie,” was the person in question.
One White House official on the Iowa trip said Trump’s disclosure seemed almost vindictive.
Pence’s second stop was the headquarters of grocery chain Hy-Vee Inc. in Des Moines, where he was to discuss how the coronavirus outbreak has impacted the U.S. food supply chain.
Iowa’s two Republican senators, Grassley and Joni Ernst, described family farms in desperate straits, as they face the prospect of euthanizing livestock because slaughterhouses can’t operate at normal capacity. On the other end of the supply chain — to the increasing anger of farmers — prices are skyrocketing for processed meat because of shortages.
“You hear a lot of distress,” Grassley said. He said about 90 percent of calls he’s received regarding the coronavirus outbreak came from farmers or their advocates.
“Things are not very good out there on the farm,” he said.
Ernst called it “a very, very stressful and distressing time.”
Pence sat silently as they spoke, barely moving. “I hope the people of Iowa have a sense of just how fortunate you are,” he said, citing Reynolds’ leadership and Trump’s support for a $764 billion small-business loan program. He offered no new assistance or proposals to help struggling farmers.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Pence that he raises chickens, and that some poultry farms are likely to go out of business. Help for agriculture included in the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package that Trump signed into law “doesn’t come close to covering the cost to farmers during this epidemic and during the trade war” with China, he said.
Trump said in a tweet on Saturday that the Agriculture Department will begin next week purchasing $3 billion in U.S. farm products — dairy, meat and fresh produce — for food banks, a program created by the stimulus law.
Duvall added that farmers are also starting to doubt Beijing will meet promises to buy more U.S. agricultural goods under the president’s heralded “phase one” trade deal with the country.
“We had high hopes,” Duvall said. “And now we’re wondering whether or not the president’s going to be able to keep their feet to the fire and make them come good on their commitments.”
Pence replied: “Zippy, thank you. Hearing you speak makes me proud to be an American.”
The vice president ended the meeting by telling the food industry executives that “it may well turn out to be your finest hour, a time when an industry stepped up and met the moment.”
Pence’s motorcade left the grocer’s headquarters almost two hours behind schedule. Back aboard Air Force Two, Pence avoided the reporters accompanying him, with whom he normally engages in some off-the-record banter.
The plane flew home through a thunderstorm that rocked it from side to side as lightning flashed. One Pence staffer became ill. After a turbulent landing at Joint Base Andrews, it seemed impossible that Pence would chance a helicopter flight in the wind and rain.
But the vice president hurried to Marine Two, not even waiting for photographers to assemble to capture images of his departure. His helicopter ascended into the storm.
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