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White House scrambles for safety on holiday parties

White House holiday decorations
Associated Press

It’s beginning to look a lot like a pandemic-era Christmas at the White House.

Officials have been scrambling to determine the best way of handling the typically buzzing party schedule in the executive mansion given the threat from the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, according to sources familiar with the deliberations. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged earlier this month, weeks before the omicron variant made headlines, that the holidays would “look a little bit different” this year, when asked about whether it had been determined if the usual receptions and galas could be safely held.

“But certainly, we expect to celebrate the holiday season,” Psaki said in the Nov. 12 remarks.

A number of options have been weighed for the holiday season, sources told The Hill.

The discussions have included hosting the holiday receptions outside on the South Lawn and limiting the number of receptions altogether. 

It’s unclear if the traditional White House receptions will be held at all.  

One source familiar with the internal discussions said that if they do go forward, guests will be required to get a negative COVID-19 test before entering the White House grounds.

But one source emphasized that the planning is still fluid and nothing has been decided. 

“There will be more details on holiday parties, but there are not, as you know, restrictions that have been announced to date by our health and medical experts so that hasn’t impacted or changed our approach,” Psaki told reporters Monday when asked if there were any plans to restrict the size of holiday gatherings given the omicron variant

The White House has been known to host more than 100 open houses and parties throughout the month of December. Last year, the Trump administration faced blowback for hosting as many as 20 in-person galas during the holidays amid a surge in coronavirus cases. 

During some of the receptions, guests have a chance to mingle on the main floor of the mansion while dining on a buffet-style dinner and drinking eggnog. Before former President Trump took office, the receptions also included a chance to pose for a picture with the president and first lady.

Many White House officials have been at the heart of the discussions, according to one source familiar with the planning. West Wing officials, including White House chief of staff Ron Klain and coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients, have been consulting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to best navigate the holiday season and the foot traffic that comes along with it. 

Elizabeth Alexander, communications director for first lady Jill Biden, teased Monday that there would be more announcements “in the coming days” about “additional openings” at the White House.

While it typically hosts tens of thousands of visitors during the holiday season, the White House is currently closed for public tours because of the pandemic. White House officials announced Monday that this year they’re turning to digital décor, with a variety of “interactive viewing experiences” on Instagram, Snapchat, Google Maps Street View and other platforms that will “allow individuals to engage with the White House during the holidays from home.”

Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Department of Health and Human Services’ deputy assistant secretary from 2008 to 2015, encouraged the White House to “lead by example” with their Christmastime celebrations.

“I would think that they probably wouldn’t host large holiday parties, [and] if they’re going to host things, that they be outdoors,” Parekh said. “It’s really important that our nation’s leaders model the type of behavior that they want for the rest of the country to follow.”

Parekh commended the White House for following CDC recommendations by keeping the indoor mask mandate in place, even as Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) moved to lift the citywide indoor mask mandate.

“That leadership by example is important,” he said.

“I think obviously the pandemic has really made it difficult to do a lot of these types of bigger social events with lots of people gathered indoors eating and drinking,” Matthew Costello, a senior historian with the White House Historical Association, said.

Costello predicted the soirees will be “somewhat limited” this year, with “different public health measures in place.”

“I’m sure it will be different in terms of how many they host,” he said.

It wouldn’t be the first time the White House has taken a pause on major holiday festivities amid a crisis. Costello said the November 1963 assassination of President Kennedy led to a “pretty subdued Christmas season” for President Johnson, without the typical December filled with receptions.

Inside the White House this week though, the holidays appeared merry and bright — and almost normal — as the annual decorations and theme, “Gifts from the Heart,” were revealed Monday.

Still, amid the 6,000 feet of ribbon and 10,000 ornaments, reminders of the pandemic dotted the historic space.

The Bidens’ official Christmas card included a message dedicated to the lives lost due to the coronavirus. The East Colonnade featured iridescent doves and shooting stars, in what the White House said was a way of representing “the peace and light brought to us all by the service of frontline workers and first responders during the pandemic.”

Even the White House’s gingerbread house — typically a massive display that paints a picture of a sugary sweet scene starring a replica of the mansion — attempted to balance holiday cheer with the brutal reality of life during COVID-19.

This year’s gingerbread creation included mini versions of community buildings — including a hospital, gas station and schoolhouse, among others — to mark “our gratitude and admiration for our Nation’s frontline workers who kept our country running through the global pandemic, often at great risk to themselves and their families.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed

This story was updated at 2:36 p.m.

Tags Christmas Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Holidays Jen Psaki Jill Biden Muriel Bowser Ron Klain White House

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