A mostly maskless White House event last weekend suspected at the center of a coronavirus outbreak that has afflicted President Trump was held in conflict with a D.C. government ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, alarming local officials and health experts who fear the potential of community spread.
The D.C. regulations do not cover federal property, meaning the White House was technically exempt, but the fallout has left city officials scrambling over how to respond. For now, they have deferred to the Trump administration for contact tracing efforts to contain the transmission of a disease that has killed more than 208,000 Americans.
Experts said contact tracing for an event with more than 150 people — who were on hand in the Rose Garden as Trump introduced his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett — would be extraordinarily difficult. Seven people besides Trump who were there have tested positive in recent days: first lady Melania Trump, former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and an unnamed journalist.
It is not known how many others in the crowd have been tested, contracted the virus or begun to self-quarantine in Washington or in other cities. Hope Hicks, a senior White House aide, also has tested positive, though it is not known whether she attended the Rose Garden event. Her case raises the possibility that the virus spread through the White House afterward, and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has said more positive tests among White House staffers are likely.
The uncertainty comes at a crucial moment for the city, which has fared better than most states in controlling the novel coronavirus, averaging about five new daily cases per 100,000 residents. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has said it is safe to begin partially reopening the city’s 51,000-student public school system in November, and she is expected to make a decision in the coming days after tussling with the teachers union about safety plans.
A local resurgence of cases could disrupt those plans.
“It is disappointing that the White House has flaunted not wearing masks and gathering large crowds,” said D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), who represents a downtown district that includes areas surrounding the White House. “That is not only dangerous messaging for the country, but it is directly threatening to our efforts to decrease our spread across the District.”
The White House has dismissed such criticism. Since June, President Trump has routinely staged large gatherings, including official events and campaign rallies, in Washington and other cities, in some cases flouting local regulations. Last month, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) slammed Trump as “reckless and selfish” after the president held an indoor rally with thousands of supporters in Henderson, Nev.
In Washington, Trump welcomed scores of guests for a fireworks show on Independence Day and spoke on the South Lawn to 1,500 supporters, most not wearing masks and seated closely, during his renomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in August.
“For months in the midst of a global pandemic, the media has celebrated large gatherings of so-called ‘peace protesters,’ — some of whom have burned down, looted, and rioted in cities across the country,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “It can’t be the case that one group is allowed to assemble but those who support President Trump are not.”
Deere said that Trump’s “top priority has been the health and safety of the American people” and that the administration has incorporated guidance and best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the Rose Garden event, most of the guests did not wear masks and were seated close together. Trump and his guests mingled inside, as well, without face coverings.
Some told reporters they were not given rapid coronavirus tests that the White House usually administers to staffers, journalists and others who are in proximity to the president.
A Bowser administration official said that eight potential cases from a single event would represent among the highest community spread incidents the city has experienced in recent months. There have been just a couple of reports in the past two weeks in which four cases or more were traced to a specific gathering in the city, at a school dormitory setting and at a group dinner for a Jewish holiday, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments of the virus.
The D.C. government is in a difficult position regarding the White House, however, because federal properties do not fall under local regulations. The National Park Service has continued to offer permits for large-scale gatherings, including the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington in August. The D.C. government did not spearhead the Fourth of July event or the anniversary march because of its objections to such gatherings.
On Saturday, hundreds of Trump supporters, waving flags and signs, took part in a permitted march through city streets.
Private entities, such as colleges and universities, work with the city on contact tracing, the official said. But this person added that the White House is managing the tracing from the Rose Garden event: “If someone was working at the White House or had dinner at the White House and went to their doctor or even went to one of our testing sites and tested positive, we would notify the White House of that. But they don’t have the same obligation to tell us. They operate as a sovereign institution.”
As of Friday, no one had contacted the city’s health department to report a positive test result related to the Rose Garden ceremony, the official said.
The District also has a two-week self-quarantine order for visitors from high-infection states, which includes Indiana — the home of Barrett, her family and other guests at the White House, including Jenkins. The Notre Dame president apologized for attending the event and for not wearing a mask.
The city’s quarantine requirement does not apply to those traveling for essential government functions but still requires them to limit their contact with others. City officials do not actively enforce the quarantine order. Bowser’s administration also has faced criticism for not enforcing the ban on large gatherings, including failing to disperse a block party in Southeast Washington in August attended by hundreds where gunfire erupted, killing one person and injuring 21.
Trump has denounced Democratic governors and other local officials for not opening up their businesses and schools more quickly. During visits to his resort in Bedminster, N.J., this summer, the president allowed guests in golfing attire to attend news briefings for reporters, in apparent violation of local ordinances banning larger gatherings indoors. The president mockingly called the display a “peaceful protest,” and supporters have held signs with that phrase at his rallies.
Local officials in Henderson, Nev., fined the owner of a manufacturing warehouse where Trump held his campaign rally last month $3,000 for violating local coronavirus regulations.
In addition to the guests at the Rose Garden event, members of the permanent White House staff, who number over 100, including the grounds crew and kitchen employees, were potentially exposed to the virus. Deesha Dyer, who served as the White House social secretary from 2015 to 2017 under President Barack Obama, said those employees “have got families, and they go home to their children and spouses and have to worry about spreading the virus.”
Rochelle Walensky, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, said containing the fallout will be challenging.
“There is no contact tracing for anywhere around 150 people because you’re not supposed to have more than 50 people,” she said. “The whole point over the past seven months in flattening the curve is to keep away from people. Now we have events over the last week in which we’ve had hundreds of people sequentially exposed, which makes contact tracing in this kind of situation a near impossibility.”
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.
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.
For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.