The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House reporters ask for virtual press briefings during the latest covid surge

White House press secretary Jen Psaki during the daily press briefing in the James Brady Room at the White House on Dec. 20. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

With a fierce new variant of the coronavirus on the loose, White House reporters are urging press secretary Jen Psaki to move her daily briefings online — but it’s an idea Psaki has been cool to so far.

The White House Correspondents’ Association has proposed holding the daily briefings on Zoom or some other online platform to avoid face-to-face contact in the White House’s cramped briefing room.

The WHCA is concerned that reporters face an elevated risk of being infected with the highly contagious omicron variant — or infecting their colleagues with it — while congregating in the 49-seat briefing room or the narrow workspaces behind it.

In a memo sent to members on Tuesday, the group’s president, Steven Portnoy, noted that President Biden himself had said in a speech earlier in the day that omicron cases are likely to be widespread in many workplaces, including at the White House.

Portnoy urged reporters “not directly tasked by their managers with being at the White House to please not come in.” He also wrote that his organization had suggested Zoom to Psaki, but “no changes are expected at this time.”

White House officials have told the WHCA that the administration’s covid protocols — which include mask requirements, and vaccine and booster checks or tests for those entering the White House premises — are sufficient protection against omicron.

But some reporters say they think the White House is more concerned about optics than medical necessity. They suggest the sight of Psaki answering press questions via video hookup might play badly with the public and undermine the administration’s assurances that it has the situation under control.

In a statement, Psaki said the White House has followed the guidance of health experts who have said its current protocols are effective. She added: “We don’t think it sends the right message to the country or the world to close the briefing room or pause in-person briefings.”

Thursday’s in-person briefing at the White House was sparsely attended, possibly reflecting both the approach of the Christmas holiday and Portnoy’s memo urging reporters to avoid the briefing room.

Psaki greeted reporters by quipping that “only the bold and the brave” were covering the briefing.

From March 2020: A ‘strange and eerie time’ for White House reporters — and a risky one, too

As a fallback strategy, the WHCA is considering capping the number of reporters permitted into the briefing room at 14 to ensure greater social distancing. The group doesn’t control who can enter the grounds or the building, but it is in charge of assigning seats in the briefing room and allocating the adjacent workspace.

Last year, before the widespread availability of coronavirus vaccines, the organization established a rotation among news organizations, limiting briefings to just 14 reporters.

Psaki appeared to favor this approach, saying, “we are open to considering a request to go back to the smaller-sized briefings.”

But such limits are voluntary and impossible to enforce. President Donald Trump ignored the 14-person limit last year and invited writers from outlets that were loyal to him, such as One America News, the Epoch Times and Gateway Pundit.

The wrangling between the WHCA and Psaki comes in the same week that Biden came into contact with a staffer who later tested positive for the virus. Psaki told reporters that the unnamed staffer had spent approximately 30 minutes near Biden on Air Force One. Biden subsequently took a test that came back negative, the White House said on Wednesday.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to keep the press corps, our staff and of course the president safe while also ensuring the media has access to the briefing room,” Psaki said in her statement.