White House gets back to pre-COVID-19 normality

White House gets back to pre-COVID-19 normality
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The White House is signaling a return to normalcy within its own walls, reflecting the opening up of the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Every single day it’s feeling more and more normal,” said one White House official, who acknowledged a relief in coming to work maskless after an awkward early few months of masking up and social distancing.

Seemingly everywhere inside and outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., it feels increasingly more like pre-COVID-19 times. 

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It’s a feeling that is mirroring emotions in the country at large as half of American adults are now vaccinated. NBA teams are increasing the number of fans attending playoff games in cities such as Washington, D.C., and more theaters are opening for the return of summer blockbusters such as the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

“Feels like the message right now is ‘Get vaccinated and here are all the cool things to do if you do,’ ” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “It’s almost like the message is, ‘Get vaccinated and get your life back.’ ”

White House officials, Payne continued, are “modeling it.” 

“I think it is about two things — it’s about incentives for people to get vaccinated so that they can return to normal and it’s reassuring people who have already gotten vaccinated that it’s OK to start getting back to normal,” added Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin.

White House officials have begun to report to work in person for the first time since President BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE was inaugurated.

Inside the briefing room and the West Wing, journalists and White House staffers are now allowed to go mask-free if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning two weeks past their last dose.

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“We are planning a phased approach to bring remote White House staff back to campus and resume other White House operations later this summer,” one White House spokesperson said. “As we do so, we will continue to follow COVID protocols and work in close consultation with our public health experts and advisors. We remain committed to facilitating a safe and productive White House campus.”

The White House is not verifying whether journalists or guests to the White House have been vaccinated, instead allowing them to make the judgment for themselves. 

“That's not the role we're going to play,” White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine House adjourns for recess without passing bill to extend federal eviction ban Hunter Biden blasts those criticizing price of his art: 'F--- 'em' MORE told reporters when asked if the White House would verify individuals’ vaccination status.

Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that there is no way to ensure full compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance in the federal government without a vaccination credentialing or verification system. 

“It is up to the individual to follow the guidance; specifically, if they are unvaccinated or in the process of being fully vaccinated, they should continue to wear a mask and practice physical distancing,” Parekh said, noting that he expects updated guidance related to this issue as well as guidelines on building capacity limits and telework within the federal government.

White House events have started to look much more normal — no social distancing, elbow bumps or masks. 

Before signing a bill to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans last Thursday, Biden embraced Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Hillicon Valley: Facebook tightens teen protections | FBI cautions against banning ransomware payments | Republicans probe White House-social media collaboration Top FBI official advises Congress against banning ransomware payments MORE (D-Hawaii) and later passed pens to lawmakers who were instrumental in passing the legislation. 

And when Biden hosted retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., and his family in the East Room on Friday to award the decorated military veteran the Medal of Honor, administration officials mingled maskless with other guests. Biden, the first lady and South Korean President Moon Jae-in crunched close together with Puckett and his family to pose for a photograph. 

On Tuesday, members of George Floyd’s family spoke to a large gaggle of reporters and photojournalists after meeting with Biden and Vice President Harris in the Oval Office — something that would have been avoided only weeks ago. 

No one wore masks. And 6 feet of distance seemed like a thing of the past. 

One Democratic strategist said the return to normalcy reaffirms Biden’s promise to get the country back to normal and the messaging shows Americans that he’s kept his promise. 

“It’s like the ultimate ‘I told you so,’ ” the strategist said. “ ‘I promised I’d get the country back to normal and my White House is back to normal.’ ”

The White House Correspondents’ Association also loosened restrictions in the briefing room this week to allow for journalists to fill 50 percent of the seats with plans to return the space to full capacity in the coming weeks once more journalists are vaccinated. The association conducted a voluntary survey of member journalists and expects 97 percent of those who participated to be fully vaccinated by June 1. 

In the press area, the association has posted signs telling journalists that they only need to wear a face covering if they are not fully vaccinated. 

White House officials still wear masks where they are required. When Jill BidenJill BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge First lady leaves Walter Reed after foot procedure Biden backs effort to include immigration in budget package MORE visited a vaccination clinic at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., last week, the first lady sported a white face mask with a flower design as she visited indoors with adolescents who were getting vaccinated in accordance with the hospital’s guidelines. 

While journalists and staff can go without masks on the White House grounds, they are still required to wear masks on all forms of transit including press vans and Air Force One in accordance with CDC guidelines. 

On Tuesday, President Biden wore a mask while in the motorcade on his way to take off from the Ellipse for a funeral in Delaware, taking the mask off as he got out of his SUV. 

The White House is also still requiring daily testing for COVID-19 for journalists who work inside the complex on a given day, a rule that is likely to be changed in the coming weeks as coronavirus restrictions are further loosened.

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The Biden White House’s coronavirus protocols have provided a clear contrast with those of former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE, who minimized the risks of the virus and eschewed public health guidelines by holding large outdoor campaign rallies throughout the pandemic. Trump and other officials routinely were seen maskless in the West Wing. Trump and former first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpOnly Trump can fix vaccine hesitancy among his supporters Trump discussed pardoning Ghislaine Maxwell: book Jill Biden appears on Vogue cover MORE as well as other White House and campaign staffers eventually caught the virus last year.

Payne said Biden’s handling of COVID-19 continues to be “a study in contrast” with Trump. 

“The history books will look back at this time and it’ll show the huge contrast between these two presidents,” he said. 

Brett Samuels contributed.