Pompeo’s lineup of parties in the next three weeks comes as the Trump administration’s own health experts are imploring Americans to limit travel and avoid large gatherings amid a pandemic that has killed more than 270,000 Americans and infected nearly 14 million across the United States.
A copy of one invitation, obtained by The Washington Post, welcomes guests to a Dec. 15 event titled “Diplomacy at Home for the Holidays” in the Benjamin Franklin Room, the department’s flagship reception space, which features cut-glass chandeliers and towering Corinthian columns. Invitations have already gone out to 900 people, said two U.S. officials familiar with the planning, raising concerns about a potential superspreader event.
“I’m flabbergasted,” said Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University. “An indoor event of this kind is dangerous on so many levels.”
A State Department spokesman said “we plan to fully enforce social distancing measures at this reception, and face coverings are mandatory for admittance.”
When asked how he could expect attendees to keep masks on at a reception that includes food and drinks, the spokesman did not offer a response. He also did not explain how the department would enforce social distancing, if even a fraction of the 900 guests show up.
“All proper food and beverage safety precautions will be taken by catering services and staff — all will wear gloves and masks and any food or beverage will be served individually,” said the spokesman, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal department planning.
But Lipkin said those measures will fall short in protecting guests. He pointed specifically to the large invite list, the consumption of food and drinks, which results in unmasking, the presence of alcohol, which encourages guests to gather closer together, and music or other ambient noise, which causes people to speak louder and increases the amount of potential viral emissions.
“This has all the makings of a repeat of what we saw in the White House Rose Garden following the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett,” Lipkin said.
One State Department official questioned why Washington’s limitations on the size of indoor gatherings to fewer than 10 people or other measures aren’t being considered for the event.
“If they were serious about safety, why have food and drink at all?” the official said.
The Dec. 15 event is for the families of officials serving in embassies and consulates abroad that don’t accommodate spouses or children, such as in Pakistan, Iraq and Cuba. In past years, more than 200 people have attended and diplomats have flown in to attend, though the spokesman said he doesn’t have any indications yet that anyone will be coming from abroad this year.
Two other holiday parties in the coming days have also raised safety concerns at the department given their size. On Dec. 16, Pompeo will host a reception for the Washington diplomatic corps at the State Department. Invites have gone out to about 180 foreign ambassadors, who are allowed to bring spouses, officials said.
The invitation could put foreign diplomats in a difficult position as they weigh the benefits of getting face time with the secretary of state and the dangers of being infected.
“Attendance is optional based on the comfort of each chief of mission,” said the State Department spokesman, who noted that the event will be “broken into two separate receptions to minimize the number of guests in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at one time.”
Another holiday party, hosted by the department’s chief of protocol Cam Henderson, involves a tour of the White House followed by a tour of Blair House, the president’s guesthouse, which is managed by the State Department. President Trump is also hosting holiday parties at the White House that defy his own health experts’ public guidance. Some of those events appear to be smaller, such as a Dec. 10 congressional ball, which will include more than 50 guests.
Henderson’s event is titled “Holiday Open House” followed by “Holiday Cheer” at Blair House. The party is also for the Washington diplomatic corps, but includes the ambassadors’ children, not just spouses. Typically, a reception at Blair House takes place afterward, but the spokesman said “there is no reception planned” this year.
Still, State Department officials noted that diplomats tend to gather and socialize at the end of events, and doubted whether anyone would break up clusters of people. They also expressed concern about catering staff and other event workers who may not have health insurance.
“It’s unfair, it’s unethical and it flies in the face of what we need to do to protect each other,” Lipkin said.
The staggering death toll of the pandemic and rising infection rates in the Washington area have forced other U.S. agencies, businesses, trade associations and political groups in the capital to cancel their holiday parties.
Top health officials, including Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, have warned that holiday gatherings may cause a surge in cases this month.
“What we expect, unfortunately, as we go for the next couple of weeks into December, is that we might see a surge superimposed on the surge we are already in,” Fauci told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “I don’t want to frighten people, except to say it is not too late to do something about this.”
The State Department spokesman said the events will include temperature checks via forehead scanning machines at the entrances, “in addition to numerous hand-sanitizing towers throughout the spaces.”