The White House is once again bustling with guests, revelers and holiday activity in a sign of how the Biden administration views the state of the coronavirus pandemic.
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden hosted hundreds of guests at the White House this week for an official state visit from French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte. In the coming weeks, hundreds more guests will filter in and out of White House holiday parties.
Both state visits and the annual holiday gatherings were paused last year as the omicron variant of COVID-19 caused a spike in cases and serious illness around the country. The return of both fixtures signals the White House believes the country is in a much better position to keep cases and deaths at bay this winter.
“I feel very confident that if people continue to get vaccinated at good numbers, if people get boosted, we can have — absolutely have a very safe and healthy holiday season,” Ashish Jha, director of the White House coronavirus task force, said at a recent press briefing.
“But there’s always a caveat here of, like, you know, things out of left field, you can’t predict…but nothing I have seen in the subvariants makes me believe that we can’t manage our way through it effectively, especially if people step up and get their vaccine,” Jha added.
The president and first lady traveled to North Carolina late last month for a big “Friendsgiving” event with military service members and their families. Both Joe and Jill Biden went table to table to chat with attendees in the large airplane hangar.
The French state visit on Thursday included a formal dinner with hundreds of guests in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre would not say whether guests for the dinner – which included lawmakers, administration officials and celebrities – were required to take a test before arriving, only that they were following CDC guidelines.
Biden on Sunday will host Kennedy Center honorees and attend the awards. While he did so last December, he was masked for the main event, something he may not do this time around.
And in the coming weeks, hundreds of guests will attend White House holiday parties. There will be separate parties for media, administration officials and allies of the president, kicking off on Monday with the Congressional Ball. At least some of those parties are expected to require a negative test for entry.
Taken together, it paints a much different picture than the cautious approach the White House took last year, when the omicron strain of COVID-19 upended many winter plans last.
The president last winter argued the country was in a far better place compared to 2020, when vaccines had not yet been approved and widely distributed.
Still, there was no big Thanksgiving event and no White House holiday parties for lawmakers, media, donors or other guests because of record-setting numbers of coronavirus infections, which posed a particular threat to the unvaccinated and immunocompromised. In January 2022, infections were at such high levels that the White House Correspondents Association reduced the capacity in the briefing room for a month until cases subsided.
This year, experts and White House officials believe the country is in a much better position to prevent a similar outbreak, and the calendar of social events in Washington, D.C., is a reflection of that.
“The clear message is that it’s time to celebrate the holiday season with a semblance of normalcy,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization’s Center on Global Health Law. “The White House is doing this without rigorous measures and precautions. The public is likely to take that as a signal they can celebrate, too, with larger gatherings, without masks and without rigorous testing.”
Gostin acknowledged the big White House events are likely to spread COVID-19 among some guests, but he said the risk is much lower than it was a year ago because of greater immunity through vaccines and natural antibodies in those who have already had the virus.
“And so we’re likely not to see the same kinds of major spikes in hospitalizations and deaths that we had in previous winter seasons, particularly during the holiday season,” Gostin said.