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‘I can’t get used to heels’: Inside D.C.’s gala season as it tries to bounce back from the pandemic

At the 53rd Meridian Ball, held on Oct. 22, guests needed a negative coronavirus test and proof of vaccination. (Photo by Stephen Bobb Photography)
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Last month, guests invited to the annual Meridian Ball showed up at the historic property two days earlier for a less glamorous affair: a coronavirus test. Anyone attending the ball was required to submit both proof of vaccination and a negative test. That Friday, 400 diplomats, government officials and business leaders in tuxedos and ballgowns partied like it was 2019.

“Over the summer, when things were looking good, we thought we’d go forward with the ball,” said Stuart Holliday, president of Meridian International Center, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on global diplomacy. “When the Delta variant emerged, we thought, ‘Well, it’s going to be a different ball.’”

They cut the guest list in half, and instituted the strict coronavirus procedures. “We thought it was appropriate to do ‘belt and suspenders’ — a double protection,” he said. Holliday was impressed and touched to see ambassadors and corporate leaders coming to get swabs so they could go to the gala. “People needed it and wanted it for their sanity.”

Last fall, everyone was stuck at home. This fall, they’ve been yearning to go out, with a few caveats. And so Washington’s elite social scene requires masks, vaccination cards and other safeguards for the foreseeable future, in a city that still has an indoor mask mandate in place. Most of the galas and fundraisers that were canceled or streamed on Zoom in 2020 have resumed in person — outdoors or indoors — with open arms and an eye on the bottom line. Every invitation involves a calculation: What’s the risk, and how much do I really want to go?

For many of the guests at the 53rd Meridian Ball, which raised $1.5 million, it was the first time they donned formal clothes in 18 months. Most guests attended indoor dinners at embassies before going to Meridian House for the ball. The champagne flowed, air kisses returned and guests mostly chatted in the outdoor garden or danced in an open-air tent, but could wander inside for the elaborate dessert buffet. It was almost business as usual.

“It’s really good that we can come out and do the events that are a traditional part of Washington,” said British Ambassador Karen Pierce, who arrived in the nation’s capital just as lockdown started. “I didn’t have a single normal day of diplomacy, and it’s a contact sport. So it’s nice to be back.”

D.C.'s gala season typically takes place in spring and fall. Many of the moneyed patrons, who spend summers traveling or at their beach homes, trickle back after Labor Day. A few private “Welcome Back” parties early in September were canceled due to uncertainty about breakthrough infections. But arts and cultural institutions were reluctant to skip a second year of fundraising galas out of fear that donors might drift away.

And so the National Symphony Orchestra went forward with its season-opening party in late September at the Kennedy Center. Masks had to be worn inside the building and proof of vaccination was required to enter the performance — the venue’s policy every day for everybody. “How does it feel to be in a room where you know everyone is vaccinated?” chairman David Rubenstein asked the audience, who whooped in approval.

After a short concert, the black-tie crowd went to the rooftop for the after-party, lining up at whiskey-tasting bars and food stations scattered among open tables. Event organizers originally planned to hold the event indoors, but with D.C.’s mask mandate, “it would have felt very pandemicky,” said co-chair A.J. Andreas. Instead, more than 500 people stepped into the clear, mild, autumn night: “The stars aligned and we got really lucky with the weather.”

The idea of skipping the party, which raised $1.5 million for the orchestra, was never seriously entertained. “Not only would it be a financial hit, but a spiritual hit,” said Andreas. The simple desire to resume life as everyone knew it — whether to attend a gala or a restaurant or a basketball game — was part of every conversation. “It’s so good to see you” really meant “It’s good to see anyone.”

Everything felt “normal” — or as normal as now ever feels “I can’t get used to heels,” confessed Andreas. Halfway through the party, she swapped them for her “fancy” rose gold Birkenstocks that she had stashed under her table. The pandemic has been good for feet.

Hillwood, the opulent former home of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, canceled its 2020 in-person gala, but most of the fundraising for it had occurred before the pandemic. So the 2021 event was less about making up for lost income and more about maintaining donor ties. “The feeling was, ‘We’re going to go forward until we can’t,’” said Lynn Rossotti, director of external affairs. The dinner, traditionally held in June, took place in late September; vaccination was required but the 344 guests did not have to send in proof and instead were held to an honor system. “We know our audience,” she said. “We were very confident.”

The evening started with cocktails and moved to a tent on the museum’s back lawn; many patrons were dressed as flappers to fit the Roaring Twenties theme. The party raised $469,000: “What we heard is that donors are just so grateful,” said Rossotti.

When Shakespeare Theatre Company discovered its donors would be less comfortable indoors, it scrambled to move its October fundraiser from Harman Hall downtown to open-air pavilions at Wolf Trap in Virginia.

“I was on the front lines of hearing people’s reactions,” said Laura Willumsen, senior director of development. Last year, people were concerned about their own health; this year they were worried about infecting young children or grandchildren. “You don’t ask donors for $10,000 — or any major gift — and put them in an awkward, uncomfortable position. Or you cancel the party altogether.”

Guests needed proof of vaccination but no masks; despite a forecast for heavy rain, only about 10 of the 325 expected guests were no-shows. The cocktail hour was packed — the predominant feeling was playful, with a dash of gallows humor: “This is so great. I just hope it’s not a superspreader event,” joked one guest.

Guests moved through three open-air pavilions: One for cocktails, one for a performance and one for dinner. “Theater is back!” Artistic Director Simon Godwin told the crowd. “Through your generosity, we were able to survive long months of closure.” The night raised $800,000. Said Willumsen: “As uphill as this is, I’m very pleased.”

Navigating the pandemic is easier in good weather. The challenge now is coaxing people indoors.

The Washington Ballet has a complicated history with the coronavirus: Artistic director Julie Kent and several donors were infected after a virtual gala streamed from the company’s headquarters (and one co-chair’s accompanying private dinner) in June 2020, despite what organizers believed were sufficient precautions. This past June, the company came back with a black-tie, in-person outdoor gala. Proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test was required to enter.

The virus didn’t stop a D.C. socialite from throwing a backyard soiree. Then the tests came back positive.

For last month’s season opener, the company had a different issue: They needed a venue, and their usual spots were booked. Canceling the performance and dinner was never seriously entertained, said managing director Patrick Muhlen-Schulte.

“We were so keen to get back in person no matter what” he said. “We chose the National Building Museum because it has a lot of air in it but it’s also a nontraditional venue we thought might invite people into the ballet.” The soaring central atrium is about as outdoor as an indoor space can be; a stage was erected in the center and the preperformance dinner took place on one of the sides.

During the last 18 months, a lot of performing arts companies like his explored digital programming, Muhlen-Schulte said. “But we’re not a ballet company unless we’re performing live.” Guests had to show vaccination cards and ID at the door, and masks could be off during dinner but were required during the performance.

The October galas ended with a lavish dinner in honor of Japanese Ambassador Koji Tomita hosted by longtime lobbyist Roy Pfautch. More than 200 VIPS — including 30 senators and two dozen House members — showed up at the Renwick Gallery. Proof of vaccination was required; masks came off as soon as people hit the bar.

“Once I was told it was safe to do this — and I checked it very thoroughly — I thought it would nice to be together and relive the past today,” said Pfautch. “I think this evokes the type of interaction that I knew here for so long.” Guests wandered through the rooms, hugging people they hadn’t seen in two years. The tables were topped with lush bouquets; a table card stated that a matching gift was donated to Bread for the World.

But otherwise, Washington partied like it always did. Sen. Lindsey Graham sat at his assigned seat for a few minutes, then popped up and beelined for the door. “Gotta run and do Sean Hannity,” he told Pfautch with an unapologetic grin.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Read more:

Ballgowns, tuxedos, champagne: The last real ball in Washington is a relic of the past

In 2020, the Meridian Ball went casual as it shifted online

At 50, the Kennedy Center can no longer be a cultural island