Ashley Taylor Bronczek, one of Washington’s social stars, decided to throw a party after the Washington Ballet’s online fundraiser, which she co-chaired. The June 18 gala was a huge success, raising more than $800,000 — the top sponsors were her generous in-laws, David and Judy Bronczek. To celebrate the occasion, she hosted a catered dinner for a couple dozen friends in the backyard of her Spring Valley home. It was, by all accounts, a picture-perfect night chronicled on (per usual) her Instagram account.
Then Bronczek, 37, was diagnosed with covid-19, along with a few other guests at the event. The news spread quickly through the wealthy young families in her social circle because their small children play together. Friends begged her to take down photos of the party, which she eventually did. But details of the evening — some true, some exaggerated — were already all over town.
This summer everyone is struggling to balance their yearning for normality with the risk of catching this virus. Young is safer than old. Outside is better than inside. Masks are better than no masks. And a handful of people are wiser than a lot of people. And so we make the calculation to attend or skip drinks on the patio, a backyard barbecue, a socially distanced birthday party. Most of the time it’s fine. Unless it isn’t.
Citing health issues, Bronczek originally offered to answer questions for this article via email, then changed her mind and declined to comment. Some guests who attended the party also declined to comment or claimed they were, in fact, not at the event. Ten others in Bronczek’s circle were willing to discuss details of the evening only if they were not named.
People are finally social distancing, in every sense of the word.
The Washington Ballet's 75th anniversary gala was originally scheduled as a black-tie dinner in May but, like every other arts organization, the ballet was forced to reimagine the evening. It moved the date and created an hour-long virtual gala streamed live with pretaped dance performances, live toasts and remarks, and a three-course catered dinner delivered to the home of every guest. It was innovative, elegant and a financial success.
The ballet followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and D.C. Department of Health guidelines for safety: Married dancers sheltering in place performed together; others performed at a safe distance and all the choreography was crafted with that in mind. All who came into the ballet’s building that night for the live remarks had their temperature taken, signed a statement at the door and were asked to stay a safe distance apart.
The ballet’s virtual gala gave supporters a way to come together for a shared experience in a safe format. The pandemic has upended all the conventional wisdom about socializing in Washington. When organizations canceled the traditional spring fundraisers, people began looking for other ways to engage with friends.
It started with Zoom cocktail parties and online book parties, then cautious, in-person gatherings: a handful of friends on a patio for drinks sitting six feet apart, one or two couples for dinner outside, each with a separate table. For many, even that is too risky — and the idea of a large party, even outdoors, seems reckless.
But Bronczek, apparently restless for a slice of her old life, invited friends to an in-person viewing party and dinner on the night of the ballet’s virtual gala. Some declined, citing health concerns.
“It’s just common sense,” said an invitee. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
For the more than two dozen who accepted, the evening began with them watching Bronczek and co-chair Sara Lange, both dressed in black evening gowns, at the ballet’s headquarters to thank sponsors during the broadcast. They beamed glamour and energy — the new generation of philanthropists in the nation’s capital.
The granddaughter of two beloved fixtures on Washington’s social scene — former LBJ adviser Lloyd Hand and jewelry designer Ann Hand — Bronczek was a 20-something striking blonde who made a big splash the second she moved from California to Washington in 2005. She was engaged to multimillionaire real estate investor Joe Robert, but the 31-year age difference proved to be the dealbreaker. In 2012, she married Matt Bronczek, the co-owner of a design and renovation company whose father was the president of FedEx. The high-profile couple quickly settled into life on the A-list: Three small children, a gorgeous house in Northwest Washington’s Spring Valley neighborhood, serving on boards of prominent local institutions, fabulous vacations — much of it posted on her Instagram account.
She was, by all accounts, the perfect choice to co-chair the gala — rich, connected and a social power broker. The ballet was aware of her dinner but felt it couldn’t really weigh in: The party was private and no one from the ballet attended or performed, according to a Washington Ballet spokesman. And her in-laws donated at least $75,000 for the gala, so that may have tempered any impulse to comment.
While Bronczek was at ballet headquarters for the live-streamed program, guests dressed in “summer chic” (cocktail dresses, jackets but no ties) mingled in her backyard and near the pool with cocktails while a large TV screen broadcast the gala. There were flowers and candles and a slight breeze. The only people wearing masks were photographer Tony Powell and the wait staff, although guests were not standing face to face.
“It was very well intentioned,” says Powell, who was shooting the party for Washington Life magazine. “I did notice there was a lot more space between people. They were not as close as they normally are.”
Technically, the dinner violated the District’s Phase 1 guidelines, which prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people. And the tables were large rounds with eight or 10 place settings — which is lovely for dinner conversation but perhaps unwise during a pandemic. Still, there was no sign anyone was sick and everyone seemed happy to forget about the virus, if only for one night.
Powell ran into Bronczek returning to her party from the ballet headquarters. “She was so excited,” he says. “She was radiant.”
As it turned out, the coronavirus crashed the party without anyone realizing it.
It is, of course, unclear how or when Bronczek contracted the virus and whom she may have passed it to, and there's no reason to believe she knew she had it. But within hours of the dinner, she began showing symptoms and was diagnosed shortly thereafter. Others who sat at her table are rumored to have also tested positive but did not return calls or declined to comment. Citing federal privacy laws, the ballet said that it cannot disclose any personal health information about any staff or artists.
The news spread among Bronczek’s friends, many of whom had attended the dinner or had children in her backyard summer camp. The kids had been part of an informal play group of wealthy families who interacted on a regular basis and spent a lot of time together. But the hostess was slow to share her diagnosis with her circle — fearful of the social fallout, according to some friends, as much as the virus. Eventually, she texted the news, and families rushed to get tested.
And that fallout has been unsparing — not just for hosting the party, but for failing to immediately notify anyone who may have been exposed to the virus.
“Everyone’s angry,” said one neighborhood mother, who declined to give her name while discussing Bronczek. “Everyone’s trying to figure out who has it.”
RJ Whyte Event Production, which coordinated the virtual gala, was not involved in Bronczek’s dinner, according to the company. The wait staff of Occasions, which catered both the gala and the live dinner, reportedly have been quarantined for two weeks and are unable to work.
The lush photos taken at the event looked careless to some attendees after the fact. One guest called Powell and asked him to remove the images on his personal Instagram account because it clearly showed who attended the dinner; he complied. A series of photos remained on Bronczek’s Instagram page for a week before she was finally persuaded to take them down.
A night to remember. A night to forget. Or, perhaps, a lesson learned: No one is immune.