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White House planning a packed season of holiday parties

First Lady Melania Trump on Nov. 30, shared video of the White House Christmas decorations. (Video: @FLOTUS)

The White House is forging ahead with plans for at least 25 indoor holiday parties this month despite the ongoing surge in coronavirus cases, ignoring warnings from the Trump administration’s own public health professionals to limit travel and avoid congregating in large group settings.

The president and the first lady are determined to have a final holiday season in the White House, officials said, despite a pandemic that has killed more than 268,000 Americans and infected 13 million across the country. Many of the administration’s supporters have taken a skeptical view of the restrictions aimed at combating the virus and are choosing to attend, officials said.

The events, including a congressional ball on Dec. 10, will each include more than 50 guests and could risk the health of White House staff members and others who work at the parties. Most guests will not be tested in advance, one official said.

At the first such event Monday afternoon — a reception for volunteers who helped decorate the White House — guests were given champagne and snacks and mingled in the State Dining Room and the East Room, among other places. Some did not wear masks or adhere to social distancing, officials said.

The parties, likely to cost millions of dollars, will be paid for by the Republican Party, according to a person with knowledge of the planning. Two holiday parties were scheduled for Tuesday at the White House, an official said.

Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for first lady Melania Trump, said Tuesday that protocols will be taken to protect attendees.

“This includes smaller guest lists, masks will be required and available, social distancing encouraged while on the White House grounds, and hand sanitizer stations throughout the State Floor,” Grisham said. “Guests will enjoy food individually plated by chefs at plexiglass-protected food stations. All passed beverages will be covered. All service staff will wear masks and gloves to comply with food safety guidelines. Attending the parties will be a very personal choice.”

But health experts expressed dismay at the plans, noting that cases are not only increasing across the country but also in the Washington area specifically. They added that travel by many guests from outside D.C. probably would violate myriad state and city restrictions.

“Our rates in the area, just in the region, are going up at a degree where it’s hard now to trace or identify sources of infections, and testing alone is no longer protective unless you’re testing and technically quarantining, which I doubt these people are,” said Kavita Patel, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked on health policy in the Obama administration. She is also an internal medicine physician who sees covid-19 patients at Mary’s Center, a community health clinic in D.C.

“While colleagues of mine are literally leaving families and living in garages and trying to help take care of covid patients, this feels like another slap in the face. That is a disaster,” Patel said.

Across Washington, many businesses, trade associations and political groups are not having holiday parties this year because of concerns about spreading the deadly virus. Millions of families across the country have also canceled their plans to gather together in large groups.

One White House ally said he had been invited to two parties already, while another said a formal invitation to one event included no guidance on masks or social distancing. Invitees include donors, lawmakers, senior staffers on Capitol Hill, family members of White House aides and prominent conservative supporters. The president and first lady are expected to make appearances at the events, officials said.

The parties are a bipartisan annual tradition, and many guests residing outside Washington visit the city for the fetes. There is considerable interest among Republicans on Capitol Hill in attending the parties, a senior Republican aide said.

Some of the events are tours, while others are formal receptions with food and drink offerings. There will be two parties a day on some days, officials said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says indoor gatherings pose more risks than outdoor, and that “gatherings with more people pose more risk than gatherings with fewer people.” But the CDC does not have a limit on the number of attendees for gatherings.

Still, the administration’s leading scientists have asked Americans to be particularly careful over the holiday season. Health officials have repeatedly warned the White House against hosting indoor events, but they have resigned themselves to the fact that Trump and his aides will ultimately do what they want

“I blame the White House for hosting as much the guests who choose to attend knowing that good public health behaviors are not practiced in and around the White House,” one senior health official said.

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, warned about a rising surge in cases due to holiday events on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

“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 said. “I don’t want to frighten people, except to say it is not too late to do something about this.”

Fauci also floated some additional restrictions he said the country might have to consider. “We are going to have to make decisions as a nation, state, city and family that we are in a very difficult time, and we’re going to have to do the kinds of restrictions of things we would have liked to have done, particularly in this holiday season, because we’re entering into what’s really a precarious situation,” he said.

Trump has shown no inclination to avoid attending large events, even after contracting the virus himself in early October.

A number of events at the White House have previously been linked to coronavirus outbreaks, including a ceremony for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination and an election night party. Besides the president, dozens of White House aides, including the chief of staff, the national security adviser and the press secretary, have contracted the virus.

Many aides say they believe Trump’s mishandling of the virus is one of the primary reasons he lost the election to President-elect Joe Biden, who has endorsed mask-wearing and other restrictions aimed at limiting spread.

“The White House is . . . sending out 2020 with a bang. Indoor gatherings like this at a time of high community spread of SARS-CoV2 puts revelers at the White House holiday party at risk, as well as staff who must work the event,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. “It’s characteristic of the irresponsibility that has defined this administration’s approach to the pandemic. It’s cavalier, selfish and wrong.”