At least five members of the choir and orchestra at the Dallas megachurch visited by Vice President Mike Pence this weekend tested positive for the coronavirus in June, according to Facebook posts and internal church emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
An additional orchestra member had symptoms several days after being exposed and was awaiting a test result in mid-June, according to a call for prayers sent to the church’s musicians.
None of those six people were at the First Baptist church in Dallas during Pence’s hour-and-a-half-hour visit on Sunday, but it's unclear how many of the musicians who performed for Pence may have been exposed during previous practices and performances with those who were infected.
Public health experts have expressed particular concerns about the dangers of indoor singing and wind instruments in large groups, which can readily spread the respiratory virus.
The choir and orchestra performed for Pence without masks, according to a video of the event reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
One of the church’s music directors — who himself has been quarantined after testing positive for the virus — wrote an email informing the church’s musicians that choir members would not wear masks while singing.
“Some of you may know but I’ve been in quarantine since June 14 after several exposures. I was tested and it came back positive for the virus,” a music director and the associate minister of worship, Jarrod Blackstock, wrote in a private Facebook group for the choir and orchestra on June 30. Blackstock also plays first trumpet in the orchestra.
“I thought Freedom Sunday was a great day. Everyone who participated did an excellent job! I’m sorry that I wasn’t there and hated to miss it,” he added. Blackstock also said he would be back in church this coming Sunday. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The “Freedom Sunday” service at First Baptist — billed as part religious gathering, part political rally — was led by Pastor Robert Jeffress, a Fox News contributor and member of the White House Faith Initiative, created via an executive order by President Donald Trump in 2018.
The event came just one day before the Texas Department of State Health Services reported more than 5,900 COVID-19 hospitalizations, an all-time high for the state, and as Dallas reported a record-high day for cases. Gov. Greg Abbott, who aggressively pushed to reopen the state in May but rolled back his plan last week after cases surged, sat alongside Pence in the church’s pews.
“With this governor and this president, we’ll bring Texas and America back bigger and better than ever before,” said Pence in his remarks. The congregants, some in masks, waved American flags while the choir and orchestra pumped out rapturous versions of “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a glowing purple stage. “Working with your governor, we will put the health of the people of the Lone Star State first,” Pence said.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson also touted the administration’s successes under Trump and praised Pence for his work on the White House coronavirus task force, which he is also a member of. “We must learn to dominate the virus and not let the virus dominate us,” Carson said.
In response to a detailed list of questions about the cluster of coronavirus cases in the megachurch’s choir and orchestra, Abigail Miller, the director of communications for First Baptist Dallas, said, “We have taken steps to ensure that no one who has been knowingly exposed to anyone with COVID-19, demonstrated any symptoms, or tested positive has participated in our choir or orchestra until medically cleared to do so.”
She added, “We have been very strategic and prudent in our approach and have followed established guidelines and recommendations.”
Miller did not answer questions about whether Pence’s team was notified of the illnesses prior to attending the service. A White House official also did not clarify whether Pence’s team was informed of the cases but said that the vice president wore a mask and maintained social distancing during the event.
Philip Huang, Dallas County’s Health and Human Services director, declined to confirm or comment on the cluster of cases at First Baptist. When asked whether COVID-19 cases within a choir were dangerous, he said, “any medical expert would tell you that is not a good situation.”
“Appalling,” said infectious disease expert Lisa Maragakis of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. As soon as the first infections appeared among the choir and orchestra, she added, both groups should have been quarantined instead of practicing and performing together the rest of the month.
“This is a disease that kills people, it kills people of all ages,” Maragakis said. “It is a major threat to people’s lives.”
When the pandemic hit, the choir and orchestra first maintained its rehearsal schedule over Zoom. But, under Abbott, Texas was one of the earliest states to push reopening; by May 18, retail stores, movie theaters, and restaurants were back in business. On June 3, Abbott ordered that religious services could resume with no limits on occupancy as long as “good faith” efforts were made toward safety.
The megachurch resumed in-person rehearsals for the choir and orchestra on June 10, emails show. “We are back!” an email announced. Members were allowed to attend as long as they could confirm that neither they nor their family members had a fever of over 100 degrees, that they were not showing flulike symptoms, and that they had not had prolonged contact with someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks.
Masks were encouraged on the church campus but only required in the backstage hallway, according to the email. Singers were positioned apart from each other — but, according to the church’s reopening plan, once the state had moved to phase three, church members did not have to stay the CDC-recommended 6 feet apart. The orchestra rehearsed in a separate part of the church. Temperature checks were also done before performances.
Still, those precautions may not have been sufficient. Only around 45% of confirmed coronavirus cases report fevers early in an infection, and many cases are spread by people without symptoms, making temperature checks a half measure at best to monitor for signs of the illness.
“While singing, we will not wear masks,” Blackstock wrote in an email to the church’s musicians the morning of the June 10 rehearsal.
That night, a percussionist started experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. His fever spiked for several days, and he felt fatigue along with a persistent loss of taste and smell, he wrote in a Facebook post on June 14.
Friends wished him well on his Facebook page and checked in on him. “We are all praying and rooting for you!” one wrote.
The same day as his Facebook post, members of the choir and orchestra performed together at two Sunday services.
Within a week, three more musicians would test positive.
On June 18, the music director informed the choir and orchestra that a soprano had tested positive for COVID-19, according to an email sent to the musicians. The following day the director reported that two other people had tested positive: another soprano in the choir, who had close contact with the singer, and a bassist in the orchestra.
“We are praying for a quick and easy recovery,” the music director wrote in the June 18 email. All three emails called on the congregation to keep the musicians in their prayers.
Public health officials have long cautioned that singing could be an efficient way for the coronavirus to spread. In March, a 61-person choir practice in Washington state led to an outbreak of 53 illnesses and two deaths. Still, after pressure from the White House, in late May the CDC removed guidance for churches to limit choir practices during the pandemic from its official recommendations, the Washington Post reported.
“In general, choirs are a higher-risk activity because of the droplets they spread; they have to be approached in a more cautious manner,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told BuzzFeed News.
The prevalence of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases that cause infections also makes the use of wind instruments in an orchestra concerning, said aerobiologist Josh Santarpia of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “Most brass instruments have a spit valve for a reason,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential for aerosols to be generated and for transmission both by singing and instruments.”
The virus’s incubation period of 2 to 14 days also means that other musicians in the choir or orchestra who might have been exposed may still not have developed any symptoms by Sunday’s performance.
“Fortunately, we’re all using a common-sense approach,” said Bruce Dunai, who has played in the orchestra for 35 years. “People are being proactive and letting us know” about the cases, he added.
The trombone player, who has attended the in-person rehearsals and Sunday’s performance, said he trusted the precautions the church was taking with the choir and orchestra and that Jeffress, the church’s pastor, had also been encouraging the congregation to wear masks.
“Obviously, when you're sitting, rehearsing, playing an instrument, you can't wear a mask,“ Dunai said, adding that he “didn’t have any hesitations” about performing because he didn’t have any symptoms or risk factors for severe illness.
As Freedom Sunday approached, church leaders sent an email to the musicians about Pence’s visit, urging members to “follow protocols.”
“We will be facing opposition,” the email read. “We can’t deny what’s going on around us. New COVID cases continue to increase in Dallas.” It also noted that: “With 14,000 members, we are going to have some COVID cases, but we need to limit this number. We do NOT want an outbreak.”
On the morning of June 28, as protesters began to gather outside the megachurch’s sprawling six-block campus, 140 members of the choir and around 40 of the orchestra gathered to rehearse for the Freedom Sunday service. Images and video from this practice reviewed by BuzzFeed News show many of the choristers without masks while they were waiting to sing, and leaning together to talk and take pictures. Most members of the orchestra were also unmasked. Neither the choristers nor musicians were spaced 6 feet apart from each other.
The Freedom Sunday service violated one of the tenets of the church’s reopening plan — that a limit of 100 choristers would be enforced in the 300-person choir loft. An additional 40 members of the choir participated in the service, making the space even more crowded. Miller, the First Baptist spokesperson, said the choir rafters were limited to 50% occupancy for the performance.
Video footage from the service shows that many members of the orchestra — who were closer to the congregation than the choir — remained unmasked during prayers, readings, and speeches, although their platform was lowered during Pence’s address.
Addressing his congregation on Sunday, Jeffress praised Trump as “the most resilient, the most courageous, the most faith-friendly president in the history of America.” He touted the administration’s anti-abortion, pro-Israel agenda and the number of conservative judges it has put in place.
The crowd applauded and got to their feet, and Jeffress added, “President Trump, we love you.”