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A ‘strange and eerie time’ for White House reporters — and a risky one, too

Journalists and staffers are being subjected to medical screenings and temperature checks before White House press briefings during the coronavirus pandemic. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The White House beat is one of the most prominent assignments in journalism, and one of the most prestigious.

These days, it may be the most anxiety-provoking one, too.

Despite a new round of health precautions imposed on Monday, reporters working at the White House are operating in one of the few workplaces in America at which dozens of people remain in proximity and within a confined space — conditions ripe for spreading the coronavirus.

The reporters acknowledge that they are at risk for becoming sick and spreading it to family members. But say they want to keep at it because the story is too important to abandon.

For the past few days, entering the complex has been “like trying to avoid triggering an invisible delayed-action land mine,” said Steve Herman, Voice of America’s White House bureau chief.

Herman has covered natural disasters and worked in combat zones, and he traveled to Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 to report on the meltdown of a nuclear reactor. But he said that he’s never felt “as much apprehension about getting to a story as riding the Metro to the White House over the past week.”

Herman and other reporters in the 49-seat briefing room and small workspace behind it are avoiding touching door handles and other surfaces and are washing their hands frequently. Bottles of hand sanitizer have sprouted around the premises like spring flowers. White House staffers also take reporters’ temperatures when they enter the press area, and periodically throughout the day. Anyone registering an elevated reading, as one unidentified reporter did on Saturday, is banished.

The number of journalists and technicians permitted to enter the briefing room — a rectangular space built over the old indoor swimming pool enjoyed by President Roosevelt in the 1930s — was cut sharply on Monday by order of the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA).

The organization, which represents journalists in negotiations with White House officials, cut the number of available seats in half and mandated that only reporters with assigned seats could enter. The order has thinned the ranks in the press room and work area from around 100 people on a typical day to about 30. Reporters now sit during briefings with an empty seat between them, creating an unusual sight: a presidential news conference in a half-empty room.

Nevertheless, President Trump suggested on Thursday that the conditions may still be unhealthful. “You’re actually sitting too close,” he told reporters while standing in front of a group of federal health officials during a briefing that lasted more than an hour. “We should really get rid of another 75 to 80 percent of you.” He added that his preference would be to have only “two or three” reporters that he likes in the room.

It wasn’t clear whether he was needling the press or merely reiterating the “social distancing” recommendations of health care experts.

ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl, the WHCA’s president, noted that his organization typically presses the White House for more briefings and access for reporters, and so it’s ironic to be restricting access now. But he said the changes are necessary to preserve the news media’s ability to keep covering the president and to keep journalists healthy.

“It’s a huge story,” he said. “It’s important for us to be there. But we have to be smart about it.”

Still, he said, “it’s a strange, eerie time to be at the White House. The temperature checks, the empty seats in the briefing, the fear of the unseen. Empty seats in the briefing room for a presidential press conference? When has that ever happened? But nobody can argue it is unnecessary.”

The WHCA on Wednesday took the inevitable step of postponing its annual dinner, a celebrity-studded, 3,000-seat gala that has become a highlight of the Washington social calendar, this year scheduled for April 25. Karl said the organization hopes to revive it in late summer or early fall.

Reporters say they are aware of the fragile state of their daily work. A single positive test for the virus among a member of the press corps or White House staff would likely put an end to in-person briefings. This would force reporters and government officials to devise an alternative, such as holding the briefings via remote audio or video hookups — a technological possibility but inferior to actually being there.

“If someone walks into that room [with an infection], we’re all going home,” said a network correspondent, who, like several others, requested anonymity because his employer hasn’t authorized him to speak for publication.

He added, “I think it’s critical now, more than ever, to maintain the briefings [in their current form]. It’s crucial for us to be there. There’s no substitute for the live give-and-take with the president and his [advisers]. The American people, everyone, can see in real time how prepared he is, [and hear] what the latest information is” under independent questioning, not via speeches or news releases.

Another broadcast correspondent said the anxiety of working in the White House is “more pronounced” now than it was after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “It’s unusual to go to the White House every day and get your temperature taken a few times a day,” he said. “It’s unusual to attend briefings in which [we’re required] to sit apart from each other. The new normal is not pleasant.”

Even so, this reporter and others said they’ll keep coming back.

“Everyone in the briefing room is more concerned about what’s going to happen to the country than whether they will get sick,” said Philip Wegmann, a White House reporter for the website RealClearPolitics, possibly overstating the case for his fellow reporters.

“It’s not like we are firefighters,” he added, “but we still have an important job to do. . . . No matter what, I want to be there. I want to do my job. I want to push the White House on what they’re doing to beat this thing. Who wouldn’t?”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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