No more talk of packed churches, Trump acknowledges no gatherings for Easter

Trump had previously identified Easter as his goal to "reopen" the country.

April 10, 2020, 5:31 PM

Less than three weeks after he said he'd like to see the country reopen by Easter, President Donald Trump on Friday acknowledged Americans would not gather as usual to celebrate the holiday amid the pandemic -- although he did not explicitly call for churches to close or follow social distancing.

As families across the country celebrate the Easter and Passover holidays largely devoid of the traditional celebratory gatherings and services, Trump said he had spoken with “many pastors,” most of whom “agree that they are better off” practicing social distancing.

While many churches have switched to virtual services, some pastors, from Louisiana to Florida, have defied state and local orders and hosted hundreds of people for Sunday services. At the same time, a number of states have exempted churches from otherwise strict guidelines banning large gatherings and non-essential businesses from operating.

“It is a very complex subject,” Trump said, at his daily update briefing, without going as far as to tell churches to avoid in-person services or follow the White House's social distancing guidelines, as Vice President Mike Pence had previously done.

The president said he planned to watch an Easter service virtually, tuning in on his laptop to one led by Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, a supporter and Fox News contributor.

"Let's get healed before we do this," Trump said. "And if there is time to do that, we will do for the rest of our lives."

Earlier Friday, a Pentecostal preacher from Maryland, Bishop Harry Jackson, joined the president in the Oval Office for a short Easter blessing where Trump noted Easter would take a different form.

“Though we will not be able to gather together with one another as we normally would on Easter, we can use this sacred time to focus on prayer, reflection, and growing in our personal relationship with God,” Trump said.

The president's changed message has marked a significant reversal from an overly rosy goal the president had set last month to “reopen” the country by Easter, allowing parts of the economy to get back to normal.

"I would love to have it open by Easter," Trump said on March 24. "It's such an important day for other reasons, but I'll make it an important day for this, too. I would love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go by Easter."

PHOTO: President Donald Trump departs after speaking during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House, April 9, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump departs after speaking during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House, April 9, 2020, in Washington.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

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Public health officials and state and local leaders across the country warned there was no sign the outbreak would abate so quickly, cautioning that sending people back to work and reopening businesses early could accelerate the virus's spread.

Days later, Trump took a step back. "We had an aspiration of Easter," he said on March 29. "But when you hear these kind of numbers and you hear the potential travesty, we don't want to do anything where, you know -- we don't want to have a spike up."

The president’s Good Friday message comes as sources tell ABC News the president, in internal deliberations, has now staked out a strategy to reopen large sections of the country by May 1, even as he has held back from publicly stating a goal date.

“Easter is a very important day. So I had -- aspirationally, I said, ‘Let's see if we can do it at Easter.’ You know, but I said it would be very tough. And I was criticized for that, so I don't like giving dates. And that wasn't a date, that was just an aspiration. That would have been incredible,” Trump said earlier this week.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, April 10, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, April 10, 2020, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP

As Christians in the U.S. geared up for Easter, Jews around the world took advantage of video teleconferencing technology to hold virtual Passover seders with family and friends.

The virtual seders were just one example of religion adjusting to the reality of worship in the time of social distancing, with live-streamed services and drive-up confessionals helping to meet Americans' spiritual needs.

Vice President Pence said Wednesday that he plans to celebrate Easter by attending church from the comfort of his living room in the vice president's residence.

“The advantage is we get to go to our home church in Indiana,” the vice president said of the perk of remote church-going in the era of the coronavirus.

Pence told ABC News earlier this month that the federal government continued "to urge churches around America" to follow the White House's recommendation that people avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

The nation’s top infectious disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, on Friday emphasized the particular importance of continued adherence to social distancing guidelines at a time when it’s tempting to loosen them.

ABC News' Karen Travers contributed reporting.

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