The White House is defying warnings by public health officials for Americans not to travel and to limit gatherings this holiday season amid a new surge in coronavirus cases, by planning a host of festivities which kicked off on Monday with the arrival of the White House Christmas tree.
“Attending the parties will be a very personal choice,” said Stephanie Grisham, first lady Melania Trump’s spokeswoman and chief of staff. “It is a longstanding tradition for people to visit and enjoy the cheer and iconic decor of the annual White House Christmas celebrations.”
The decision to move forward with indoor events and other gatherings comes as the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, senior White House advisers and public health professionals across the nation plead with Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving or spend the holiday with people from outside their households.
As the weather has cooled, the virus has been spreading out of control, with cases and hospital admissions surging across the nation and more than 250,000 people dead.
The White House has already been the site of several suspected “super-spreader” events and dozens of staff — along with the president, the first lady and their son — have been infected, along with a long list of campaign aides and other advisers.
Ms Grisham said the White House would be taking precautions to provide “the safest environment possible” for attendees at events. That includes smaller guest lists, requiring masks, encouraging social distancing in the White House grounds and hand sanitiser stations placed throughout the State Floor.
“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,” she said.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s senior infectious disease expert, warned again on Monday of the potentially dire consequences of gathering this holiday season.
“We’re in a very difficult situation where the rate of infection, the slope of infections, are really very, very steep. So you might want to reconsider travel plans,” he said.
He added that indoor holiday gatherings, “as innocent and wonderful as they sound”, should be kept to a minimal number of people, preferably “just members of a household” and also warned of a potential “surge superimposed upon a surge” if precautions are not taken.
Dr Fauci predicted the country could see “well over” 300,000 deaths by the end of the year “if we don’t we turn things around”.
US surgeon general Jerome Adams on Monday repeatedly evaded questions about indoor holiday parties scheduled at the White House while calling other Americans’ indoor gatherings potential “super-spreader” events.
“I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus, by any measure: cases, positivity, hospitalisations, deaths,” he said.
“So I’m asking Americans — I’m begging you — hold on just a little bit longer. Keep Thanksgiving and the celebrations small and smart this year… do it outdoors if you can, keep it small, ideally less than 10, and prepare beforehand.
“These apply to the White House, they apply to the American people, they apply to everyone. We want you to stay safe so we can get to a vaccine.”
Not long after, the first lady attended a small ceremony to mark the arrival of the Christmas tree — by horse-drawn wagon — an event that traditionally kicks off the holidays at the White House.
Mrs Trump inspected the Fraser fir tree, smiled, waved to cameras and chatted with masked drivers as the brass section of the United States Marine Band played Christmas carols.
On Tuesday, events will continue as Donald Trump participates in the annual pardoning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey at a ceremony in the Rose Garden.
He has remained largely behind closed doors since he lost his bid for re-election. He has refused to concede, lodging baseless allegations of voter fraud in an attempt to subvert the results.