President Donald Trump made another play to his base Friday, declaring churches and houses of worship 'essential' and sharply warning the nation's governors that he would 'override' any actions they take that interfere with the resumption of religious services.
It was a move meant to shore up the support of his core supporters at a time when Trump's reelection prospects look uncertain in the midst of declining approval of his handling of the virus and the economic meltdown. Adding fuel to the latest controversy on the right -- just as he did when he supported protesters at state capitols who rebelled against their states' lockdowns -- Trump tried to assert authority he does not have as part of his relentless push for normalcy.
His comments came as the nation headed into Memorial Day weekend, a time when health experts worry that Americans' vigilance will give way to complacency with the potential for crowded beaches, pools, parks, holiday barbecues -- and now churches -- across the country.
Neither the President nor his press secretary explained Friday how he plans to follow through on his threat to governors, which he issued shortly before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released voluntary recommendations for religious institutions.
But, like his decision not to wear a mask during his tour of a Michigan Ford plant on Thursday, Trump was offering fighting words to his faithful at a time when the public is increasingly skeptical of his handling of the pandemic. A Fox News poll this week showed Trump's overall approval rating has fallen to 44%, down from 49% in April. And in a new ABC/Ipsos poll, only 39% of Americans approved of the President's handling of the crisis.
Still, Trump's remarks Friday were threaded with his impatience for the cautionary warnings of the scientists and medical experts within his own administration, who are worried about a resurgence of coronavirus cases and have highlighted the risks of large gatherings (which many religious services could entail). Throughout the week, he has courted his evangelical supporters with his charge that governors are treating churches unfairly and his insistence that he wants to 'get the churches open.'
Trump said Friday that some governors have 'deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential,' but have left out churches and other houses of worship. 'It's not right. So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,' he said during a brief statement at the White House.
'I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now. If there's any question, they're going to have to call me, but they're not going to be successful in that call,' Trump said. 'The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend. If they don't do it, I will override the governors. In America we need more prayer, not less,' he said, taking no questions from reporters.
As his general election campaign with former Vice President Joe Biden heats up, Trump has increasingly invoked America's culture wars. During a 'Rolling to Remember' ceremony earlier on Friday to honor the nation's veterans, prisoners of war and those missing in action -- where he spoke to bikers who then rode two laps around the White House driveway -- Trump noted his political support from bikers.
'Always there, the bikers,' he said. 'What do I have? 98%? 95? We're trying to find who are the 3% or the 2%. We're looking for them, right?'
'November 3rd is a big day,' Trump said, referring to the November election after they lapped the South Lawn Drive. 'We don't want to destroy this country. We're going to make it bigger, better, greater than ever before.'
Birx urges safety precautions
Though the Memorial Day weekend traditionally kicks off summer, this year's holiday will be anything but normal with many governors, mayors and local officials calling on their states' residents to continue social distancing, wear masks and stay as close to home as possible.
Speaking from the briefing room podium later on Friday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the administration's coronavirus response coordinator, tempered some of Trump's enthusiasm for reopening -- emphasizing both the social distancing guidelines that churches should adhere to in order to reopen as well as the safety precautions Americans must take to enjoy their favorite pastimes this weekend.
In encouraging news, Birx noted that 42 states now have less a less than 10% positivity rate of cases as a rolling seven-day average. But she noted that Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia are still the top states with high numbers of cases, followed by Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota. 'There is still significant virus circulating here,' she said of the Washington area.
Birx also highlighted the top metropolitan areas where the rate of positive cases has stalled or increased as places where Americans should be especially cautious this weekend. The DC metro area topped that list, followed by Baltimore, Chicago and Minneapolis. (All of the others were below the 10% threshold, which Birx said, showed 'great progress.')
Despite the encouraging news from Birx about the decline in the rate of positive cases, the holiday weekend could also mark another grim moment in the pandemic as the number of deaths in the US approached 100,000.
'We think we're going to hit the milestone of 100,000 deaths over the four-day weekend,' said Dr. Chris Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which has produced one of the most influential coronavirus models.
Looking ahead to the holiday weekend, Birx said Americans could get outside with a long list of caveats. Some Americans could play golf, she said, for example, if they are 'very careful' and 'don't touch the flags.' She suggested playing tennis with 'marked balls' and just one other person so 'you're only touching your ball.'
This weekend, if Americans want to do some kind of social gathering, 'it's very important to maintain that six feet distance and very important to have your mask with you in case that six feet distance cannot be maintained,' Birx said.
'We are asking continuously for you all to be outside, to enjoy your Memorial Day weekend; to play golf; to hike as Dr. (Anthony) Fauci said; to play tennis with marked balls -- and to be out with your families that you have been in the household with; and even consider sharing socially distanced space as long as you have utensils that belong to individuals and that maybe can be thrown out immediately,' Birx said. 'There's a lot of things to think through. I know you can do this. I know the American people can do it.'
When asked about Trump's declaration that churches and houses of worship should reopen, Birx said faith community leaders should be in touch with their local health departments to check the number of new cases in their zip codes, so they can communicate the risks to congregants.
'Certainly people that have significant co-morbidities, we want them protected. I know those houses of worship want to protect them,' Birx said. 'So really ensuring that -- maybe they can't go this week if there's high number of Covid cases. Maybe they wait another week, but there is a way to social distance like you are here,' she said, gesturing to the reporters who were spaced several seats apart in the White House briefing room, 'in places of worship.'
Though Baltimore is one of the areas of concern for public health officials like Birx, Trump and first lady Melania Trump plan to travel to Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Monday to commemorate Memorial Day.
They will do so in spite of a plea from Baltimore's Mayor Bernard 'Jack' Young who said the trip will send the wrong message at a time when he is asking the city's residents not to travel.
'I'm asking the President to rethink his trip. It sends a bad, bad message to the citizens of Baltimore because I'm asking them to stay home and only come out for essential reasons,' Young told CNN's John King. 'I just want him to set the example for the rest of the country and not do this trip, because it's not essential.'
White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere responded to earlier criticism from Young by stating that 'the brave men and women who have preserved our freedoms for generations did not stay home and the President will not either as he honors their sacrifice by visiting such a historic landmark in our Nation's history.'