URBANDALE, Iowa (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence spoke Friday to a group of faith leaders in Iowa about the importance of resuming religious services, saying the cancellations in the name of slowing the spread of the coronavirus have “been a burden” for congregants.
Pence spoke with the religious leaders and Republican officials during a brief visit to the Des Moines area. He was set to speak later in the day with agricultural and food company executives.
“It’s been a source of heartache for people across the country,” Pence told about a dozen people at the Church of the Way Presbyterian church in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale.
Pence told the group that continued efforts to hold services online and in other ways “made incalculable difference in our nation seeing our way through these troubled times.”
Iowa is among many states where restrictions on in-person services are starting to ease as stay-home orders imposed to stop the virus are being gradually ended.
Gov. Kim Reynolds, who joined both of the state’s Republican senators at the event, has instituted new rules that allowed services to resume with restrictions if they maintain social distancing and practice thorough sanitary cleaning.
At Friday’s event, some religious leaders expressed hesitation at resuming large gatherings, while others said they would begin holding services in the coming weeks.
“We are pretty much in a position of uniformly believing that it’s too early to return to personal worship. It’s inadvisable at the moment particularly with rising case counts in communities where we are across the state,” said David Kaufman, rabbi of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines.
The Rev. Terry Amann, of Church of the Way, said his church will resume services May 17 with chairs arranged so families can sit together but avoiding the temptation to shake hands or offer hugs. He said hand sanitizer will be available.
“These are challenges but we’ll be able to do it,” Amann said. “We’re excited to get back together as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
The discussion of reopening in-person church services comes as a new poll by The University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows just 9% of Americans think in-person religious services should be permitted without restrictions, while 42% think they should be allowed with restrictions and 48% think they should not be allowed at all.
Among Americans who identify with a religion, 45% say in-person services shouldn’t be allowed.
Pence left the meeting to meet with agriculture and food supply leaders. Iowa leads the nation in egg and pork production and is a top grower of corn and soybeans.
Meatpacking is among the state’s biggest employers, and companies have been working to restart operations after closing them because hundreds of their workers became sick with the coronavirus.
As Pence touted the Trump administration’s announcement of the reopening of 14 meatpacking plants Friday including two of the worst hit by coronavirus infections in Perry and Waterloo in Iowa, the union representing workers called for safer working conditions.
“Iowa’s meatpacking workers are not sacrificial lambs. They have been working tirelessly during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure families here and across the country have access to the food they need,” said the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in a statement.
The union called on the administration to immediately provide the highest level of protective equipment, ensure daily testing is available for all meatpacking workers, enforce physical distancing at all plants, provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected, and establish constant monitoring by federal inspectors to ensure these safety standards are enforced.”
Union officials were responding to Pence’s visit in which he talked with officials from grocery distributors and meatpacking plants calling continuation of the food supply one of the great success stories of the pandemic.
The union said 30 meatpacking plant workers have died.
“We’ve made great progress and I’m very confident that as we continue and put the health and safety of the American people first and implement policies as Gov. Reynolds is doing here in Iowa to safely reopen our economy, we’re going to get Iowa and Americans back to work and get America rolling again and do it in a safe and responsible way,” Pence said.
American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duval said the problems with meat availability and prices has taught Americans things about the food supply they never thought of before.
“We do have a new awareness across this country about what food means to them. You can take everything away from us but if you take food and water way from us nothing else makes a difference,” he said.
Ken Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods discussed how he had a call just before the meeting informing him that a worker had died. He said it’s been a “gut-wrenching” decision to have to make a choice between maintaining the food supply and asking workers to go into the meatpacking plants to keep production moving.
“I just want the American people to know that these employees really deserve a lot of gratitude,” he said