White House planning holiday parties indoors despite pandemic warnings

Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

Official White House Photo by Andrea HanksBy BEN GITTLESON, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Americans have been strongly urged to stay home for the holidays and cancel in-person gatherings amid a fresh surge in COVID-19 cases, but the White House said it’s still planning to host holiday parties despite dire warnings from health experts — and in the wake of a September Rose Garden event that became, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, “a super-spreader event.”

U.S. public health officials have cautioned that large, indoor holiday gatherings during the winter months could lead to a dramatic uptick in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The novel coronavirus already has killed more than a quarter million Americans.

While first lady Melania Trump’s spokeswoman and chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, said in a statement Sunday that the White House parties will take place in “the safest environment possible” and noted a series of planned precautions, the gatherings contradict government warnings on events staged even partially indoors.

For Thanksgiving get-togethers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the “safest choice” is to celebrate “virtually or with the people you live with.” If Americans do host a gathering, they should eat outside and limit the numbers of guests.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told ABC News on Monday that the CDC’s tips “apply to the White House, they apply to the American people, they apply to everyone.”

“We want everyone to understand that these holiday celebrations can be super-spreader events,” he said in an interview with ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega on Good Morning America.

The White House gatherings are scheduled to begin later this month, soon after the Thanksgiving holiday may give rise to another dangerous COVID-19 surge. ABC News obtained an invitation to a holiday reception scheduled for Nov. 30.

The White House typically holds a series of holiday parties in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa that traditionally take place on the first floor, called the State Floor, with guests allowed to wander freely through the decorated, ceremonial rooms.

The first lady is scheduled to receive the official White House Christmas tree on Monday, and the building already has been bedecked with wreaths.

This year’s events will take place at least partly indoors, on the State Floor, according to Grisham, who added that there are “smaller guest lists” and that “masks will be required and available,” with social distancing measures encouraged and hand sanitizer stations posted throughout.

“Guests will enjoy food individually plated by chefs at plexiglass-protected food stations,” Grisham added. “All passed beverages will be covered. All service staff will wear masks and gloves to comply with food-safety guidelines.”

It remains to be seen whether the White House staff and attendees actually will wear masks, though, since President Donald Trump and the first lady themselves frequently eschew face coverings, as do many members of the West Wing’s staff and the Republican members of Congress expected to be invited to such gatherings. The president, the first lady, two of the president’s children and several high-ranking staffers all have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Attending the parties will be a very personal choice,” Grisham said. “It is a longstanding tradition for people to visit and enjoy the cheer and iconic decor of the annual White House Christmas celebrations.”

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