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A quieter Christmas: White House to skip big holiday parties because of covid

The absence of the usual string of celebratory gatherings at a festively adorned White House is a highly visible sign that the pandemic continues to cast a shadow over American life, even at the highest levels. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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The White House is cutting back its holiday party season this year, opting instead for “open houses” that will let people see its Christmas decorations, officials said Tuesday, a reflection of the persistent pandemic that threatens to disrupt Americans’ year-end festivities for a second straight season.

The holiday party circuit in Washington usually kicks into full gear by mid-December — culminating in a series of glitzy receptions at the White House for diplomats, lawmakers and others — but this year President Biden’s aides have settled on events that do not entail large gatherings.

White House officials were at pains to emphasize that this does not mean they will ignore the holiday season, and Biden is not fully abandoning large get-togethers with wealthy and powerful associates. He posed for photos and spoke Tuesday evening at a Democratic National Committee holiday celebration, where some 400 party donors, senior staffers, labor leaders and other dignitaries gathered on a hotel rooftop, officials said. In his speech, Biden told guests he felt bad the pandemic had limited who could visit the White House.

“I have to admit to you, I have one serious regret,” Biden said. “I had hoped by now each one of you who had helped us get to where we are would have had full access to the White House. I mean that sincerely. We had all kinds of plans. We thought we were going to be in a position,” due to vaccinations, he added.

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The event stood out in a month that is normally dotted with VIP events featuring the president, but which has been upended this year by a recent increase in coronavirus infections and the emergence of the new omicron variant, which scientists are still studying.

“It doesn’t look exactly like it has always looked here,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “But we are going to continue to celebrate, to embrace the holiday season and look for ways we can do that.”

Still, the absence of the usual string of celebratory gatherings at a festively adorned White House is a highly visible sign that the pandemic continues to shadow American life, even at the highest levels.

And the Christmas season was already likely to be politically tricky for Biden, with Republicans suggesting Americans’ holiday joy will be dampened because of high prices and supply shortages.

“I ran for one reason — not to do anything other than do what I thought was the right thing to do, come hell or high water,” Biden said at the DNC event. Talking for 12 minutes and removing his mask while he spoke, Biden touted his domestic agenda, including the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill he signed in March.

The perils for elected officials of partying during a pandemic have been starkly illustrated in the past two years — from President Donald Trump’s packed gathering to unveil his nomination of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the birthday party at a high-end Napa Valley restaurant where California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was photographed dining at a crowded table where some did not have masks.

The former would later be revealed as an apparent superspreader event while the latter stoked accusations that Newsom, who later faced a recall election, was playing by a different set of rules than the one he prescribed for everyone else. Newsom survived the recall in large part by rededicating himself to rigorous coronavirus restrictions.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a major political threat from reports that a Christmas party was held last year in the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street — in the middle of a strict lockdown when many Britons were dying. As with Newsom, the reports prompted complaints that the ruling elite creates a set of rules for itself and one for others.

That is an impression the White House does not want to risk. “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” Psaki said. “We’re still taking precautions as it relates to large events, big visitors.”

Perhaps no one is more familiar with those risks than Biden, who hosted a July Fourth celebration last summer where he declared the country “closer than ever” to declaring its “independence” from the virus.

He was seeking to demonstrate that life was returning to normal and faced pressure to show that Americans would reap rewards if they got vaccinated. But his words proved premature, as cases surged in subsequent weeks following the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant.

But there is also a political risk in pulling back from holiday festivities at a moment when Republicans are seeking to portray Biden as something of an economic Grinch who is putting a damper on the holidays, hammering him over supply chain problems and rising inflation.

“How Bidenflation Stole Christmas,” read a Republican National Committee news release on Tuesday, illustrating how fraught the season has become for the president. The message fits into a broader GOP argument that Biden has failed in his central promise — to return the country to normalcy.

The holiday party season in the past has also been a chance for the White House to give allies face time with the president, strengthen connections with power brokers and mingle with reporters who cover the beat. Attendees have relished the chance to stand in a long line, speak briefly with the president and snap a photo with him for their mantle.

Cognizant of these factors, White House officials sought to hit upbeat notes when describing the activities they have in the works for the holidays. But it was clear those activities would not be in line with the pre-pandemic celebrations that presidents have long hosted and many hoped would return this year.

Psaki ticked through the ways the White House was celebrating the season, citing first lady Jill Biden’s unveiling of holiday decorations and the first family’s presence at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. She said the open houses hosted by the White House would feature a “range of people” who would be able to view the tree and decorations in the East Wing.

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The cautious posture contrasts sharply with the approach Trump took a year ago, when he was trying to minimize the disruptions caused by the coronavirus and often downplayed the need for masks and other precautions. At the height of the pandemic, Trump forged ahead with plans for indoor holiday parties, flouting warnings from his own public health experts.

Michael LaRosa, a spokesman for Jill Biden, said in a statement that “it is disappointing that we cannot host as many people as the Bidens would like to, but as we have done since Day 1 of the Biden Administration, we will continue to implement strong COVID protocols, developed in consultation with our public health advisors.”

LaRosa said that “in the coming days, we will host a limited number of Holiday Open Houses, inviting guests to see the Christmas decorations in person at the White House.”

Tuesday’s open-air Democratic National Committee gathering was designed to thank the group’s supporters, according to a DNC official. Guests had to be fully vaccinated and act in accordance with guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to more freely discuss the event.

Such guidance has not always neatly aligned with local guidelines, which can create complications for those hosting parties. D.C. lifted its mandate on masks in most public places last month, for example, while CDC guidance still recommends that fully vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public spaces in areas of “substantial or high transmission,” including the District.

Weeks after ending the mandate, the District issued an indoor “mask advisory.”

Biden spoke at the party, as did Vice President Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison — all delivering speeches in a reception room that was not open air. Select White House senior staffers and top DNC officials were also expected to attend, the official said.

Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases specialist who advised the Biden administration’s transition team on the coronavirus, said that throwing a party under the guidelines outlined by the DNC seemed reasonable, as long as guests were not packed “like sardines.”

Asked what factors the White House should consider when planning holiday gatherings, Gounder stressed that outdoor events are generally far safer than indoor gatherings. With proper safety protocols, holiday celebrations can still happen at the White House and elsewhere, she said.

“It’s not like omicron has to be the Scrooge of our Christmas season,” she said.

Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report.