Keeping the Biden White House Safe From COVID-19

Tray Ling

Current White House staffers aren’t asking for much from the Biden team. “I hope that they strictly enforce masks,” said one employee, who was granted anonymity because he fears he would be fired for complaining about current White House health standards to a reporter. The aide found out about President […]

Current White House staffers aren’t asking for much from the Biden team. “I hope that they strictly enforce masks,” said one employee, who was granted anonymity because he fears he would be fired for complaining about current White House health standards to a reporter. The aide found out about President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis in October through news reports, rather than an internal alert. “I would hope the new administration tells the truth, good or bad” about infections in the building, he said.

The Trump administration has been almost impressively lax in its handling of the pandemic on White House grounds. Throughout the past 11 months, the president and members of his immediate family have rarely worn face masks in public. In the West Wing, where the space between desks is closer to six inches than six feet, Trump aides have roamed the halls, held meetings, and addressed reporters entirely maskless. The first couple have flouted CDC guidelines to host a series of large gatherings at the White House, including a Rose Garden celebration that may have been a super-spreader event. Dozens of Trump allies and political aides, more than 100 Secret Service officers, and at least four White House residence staff have contracted the disease, and many of those cases can be linked directly to the White House. The director of the White House security office spent three months in the ICU, and ultimately lost part of his leg.

The incoming administration wants to handle things differently. “It’ll be a sea change, obviously,” one Biden transition official told me, when I asked about plans. In addition to requiring masks for all staff members, the incoming administration will mandate vaccines for aides who interact closely with the president and vice president (both of whom have been vaccinated); it will limit the number of people working inside the West Wing; and it will regularly test all staffers in the White House complex, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

But the new administration faces considerations outside the West Wing. The executive mansion is a dense warren of high-traffic rooms, including the tiny flower shop and the staff locker rooms beneath the North Portico, and the White House mess hall under the West Wing. Staff in these spaces eat and work in extremely close quarters, so protecting them will mean allowing only absolutely essential employees to come to work, or at least alternating schedules. The Trump administration has already furloughed some staff members to prevent infection spread, but the Biden team may need to do even more—at least until everyone can get vaccinated.

That’s totally doable, Anita McBride, a former chief of staff for First Lady Laura Bush and assistant to President George W. Bush, told me. “It is not ideal when you’re starting a new administration, but unless it’s of the most critical nature, [Biden should] limit the number of people that need to come in,” she told me. Americans can also expect the Bidens to avoid hosting soirees in the middle of a global pandemic, McBride added: “There will be no massive events in the Rose Garden or on the South Lawn. They won’t be putting [staff] at risk, setting up all this stuff.”

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