As COVID persists, White House skips holiday gatherings

WASHINGTON – The White House is reducing its holiday season this year, opting instead for “open houses” that will allow people to view its Christmas decorations, officials said on Tuesday, a reflection of the lingering pandemic which threatens to disrupt the end of the year for Americans. festivities for a second consecutive season.

Washington’s holiday tour typically kicks off in full swing in mid-December – culminating with a series of lavish White House receptions for diplomats, lawmakers, and others – but this year, the President’s aides Joe Biden have agreed on events that do not involve large gatherings.

White House officials have been careful to point out that this doesn’t mean they’ll ignore the holiday season, and Biden isn’t completely forsaking big meetings with wealthy and powerful associates. He posed for photos and spoke on Tuesday evening at a holiday celebration of the Democratic National Committee, where some 400 party donors, senior officials, union leaders and other dignitaries gathered on a hotel rooftop. , officials said. In his speech, Biden told guests he felt bad the pandemic had limited who could visit the White House.

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“I have to admit to you, I have serious regret,” Biden said. “I had hoped that each of you who had helped us get to where we are would have had full access to the White House. I sincerely mean it. We had all kinds of plans. We thought we were going to be able, ”because of the vaccinations, he added.

The event stood out in a month that is normally peppered with VIP events featuring the president, but has been shaken up this year by a recent rise in coronavirus infections and the emergence of the new variant. omicron, which scientists are still studying.

“It doesn’t look exactly like it always has been here,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “But we’re going to keep celebrating, embracing the holiday season and looking for ways to do it.”

Yet the absence of the usual chain of festive gatherings in a festively decorated White House is a very visible sign that the pandemic continues to overshadow American life, even at the highest levels.

And the Christmas season was already likely to be politically sensitive for Biden, with Republicans suggesting Americans’ holiday cheer will be dampened due to high prices and supply shortages.

“I ran for a reason – to do nothing other than do what I thought was the right thing to do, through thick and thin,” Biden said at the DNC event. Speaking for 12 minutes and removing his mask as he spoke, Biden touted his national agenda, including the $ 1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill he signed in March.

The dangers for elected officials partying during a pandemic have been made clear over the past two years – from President Donald Trump’s crowded rally to unveil his appointment of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett at the birthday party at an upscale Napa Valley restaurant where California Governor Gavin Newsom, D, was pictured having dinner at a crowded table where some were without masks.

The former would later be revealed as a super-spread event, while the latter fueled accusations that Newsom, who later faced a recall election, was enforcing a different set of rules than he prescribed for everybody. Newsom survived the recall largely by re-dedicating itself to tough restrictions on coronaviruses.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a major political threat due to reports that a Christmas party was held last year at the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street – in the middle of a strict lockdown as many Britons died. As with Newsom, the reports sparked complaints that the ruling elite are creating a set of rules for themselves and one for others.

It’s an impression the White House doesn’t want to risk. “We are still in the midst of a pandemic,” Psaki said. “We always take precautions when it comes to big events, big visitors.”

Perhaps no one is more familiar with these risks than Biden, who hosted a July 4 celebration last summer where he declared the country “closer than ever” to declaring “independence” from screw of the virus.

He sought to demonstrate that life was returning to normal and was under pressure to show Americans would reap benefits if they got vaccinated. But his words turned out to be premature, as cases increased in the following weeks after the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant.

But there is also a political risk in pulling out of the holiday festivities at a time when Republicans seek to portray Biden as some sort of economic Grinch who is putting the brakes on the holidays, hammering him over supply chain issues and the rising inflation.

“How Bidenflation Stole Christmas,” a Republican National Committee press release read Tuesday, illustrating how busy the season has become for the president. The post is part of a larger GOP argument that Biden has failed on his central pledge to bring the country back to normal.

In the past, the holiday season has also been an opportunity for the White House to give time to its allies with the President, to strengthen ties with the powerful and to mingle with journalists covering the rhythm. Attendees relished the chance to stand in line, speak briefly with the President and have a photo taken with him for their role.

Aware of these factors, White House officials have sought to take upbeat notes when describing the activities they have underway for the holidays. But it was clear that these activities would not be in line with the pre-pandemic celebrations that presidents have long held and many hoped to return this year.

Psaki went through the ways the White House celebrated the season, citing the unveiling of Christmas decorations by First Lady Jill Biden and the presence of the First Family at the lighting of the national Christmas tree. She said the White House open houses would feature a “range of people” who could view the tree and the east wing decorations.

The cautious posture contrasts sharply with the approach Trump took a year ago, when he tried to minimize the disruption caused by the coronavirus and often downplayed the need for masks and other precautions. At the height of the pandemic, Trump continued with his indoor holiday plans, flouting warnings from his own public health experts.

Michael LaRosa, spokesperson for Jill Biden, said in a statement that “it is disappointing that we are not able to accommodate as many people as the Bidens would like, but as we have been doing since day one of the Biden administration, we will continue to implement strong COVID protocols, developed in consultation with our public health advisers. “

LaRosa said that “in the coming days, we will be holding a limited number of holiday open houses, inviting guests to view the Christmas decorations in person at the White House.”

Tuesday’s open-air Democratic National Committee meeting was designed to thank supporters of the group, according to a DNC official. Guests were to be fully immunized and act according to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the event more freely.

These guidelines are not always perfectly aligned with local guidelines, which can create complications for host parties. DC lifted its mandate on masks in most public places last month, for example, while CDC guidelines still recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public spaces in areas of “significant transmission or transmission. high ”, including the district.

A few weeks after the end of the mandate, the district issued a “mask notice” inside.

Biden spoke at the party, as did Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., And DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison – all giving speeches in a reception hall that was not in the open air. Some senior White House officials and senior DNC officials were also expected, the official said.

Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist who advised the Biden administration’s transition team on the coronavirus, said throwing a party under the guidelines outlined by the DNC seemed reasonable, as long as guests weren’t not packaged “like sardines”.

Asked what factors the White House should take into account when planning holiday gatherings, Gounder stressed that outdoor events are generally much safer than indoor gatherings. With proper security protocols, holiday celebrations can still take place in the White House and elsewhere, she said.

“It’s not like omicron has to be the Scrooge of our Christmas season,” she said.

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Roxanne Roberts of the Washington Post contributed to this report.

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Sara H. Byrd