At the White House, social distancing is optional

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — As the country copes with the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are following social distancing guidelines from the White House coronavirus task force to slow the spread of the infection: staying 6 feet away from other people, avoiding large gatherings and wearing masks or cloth face coverings. 

But inside the White House, many of these rules are not being observed. There are regularly large events with unmasked attendees in close quarters — including inside the Oval Office, where some people have been allowed to enter without wearing masks or taking tests for the virus. 

Asked about the steps being taken to guard against the spread of the virus, White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said, “The President’s physician and White House Operations have been working closely to ensure every precaution is taken to keep the president, first family and the entire White House complex safe and healthy at all times. 

“Those in close proximity to the president and vice president are being tested for COVID-19. Temperature checks are occurring for all those entering the complex as well as an additional temperature check for those in close proximity to the president and vice president,” Deere said.

President Trump prepares to sign the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act in the Oval Office on April 24. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Temperature checks are indeed being conducted at multiple points in the White House complex. And some people who come close to the president have been given rapid coronavirus tests. Last week the governors of Florida and New Jersey came to the White House and met with President Trump in the Oval Office. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was tested before the meeting. And a source who came with one of the visiting governors said staffers from the state delegation were also tested. While this testing regimen has been described as a “cocoon of safety,” there are clear holes in the system.

Not everyone who goes inside the Oval Office, the president’s inner sanctum and one of the most secure spaces in the West Wing, is being tested. For both governors’ visits, a pack of pool reporters and cameramen were brought in. Though their temperatures were rechecked before they entered Trump’s office, the press pool, which stood feet away from the president, the governors and staff, were not given tests. And in the crowded confines of Oval Office press scrums, while Trump sits apart from most of the crowds, the 6-foot distancing rule is not observed, with reporters and top officials packed close together. 

Dr. Kavita Patel is a primary care physician who worked in the administration of President Barack Obama as director of policy for the White House’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement. Patel, who is a contributor to Yahoo’s coverage of COVID-19, said she believes the partial testing for those in the White House complex is not sufficient. 

“Having worked in the White House, there’s a ton of people that come in and out of there, and they touch things,” Patel said. “So, unless you are literally testing every individual and then following up … even with wiping down those surfaces every night, it’s not foolproof.”

Dr. Kavita Patel. (New America via Flickr)

Patel noted that someone exposed to the virus could test negative because they had been in an early “incubation period where the test doesn’t pick it up.” Overall, she described the protocols at the White House as “not adequate enough.” 

“I work in a clinic. It’s not safe enough for us in a clinic. Why would we have an even lower standard in the White House, of all places, just given the importance of … obviously the commander in chief, but think of all the other officials, Cabinet members, etc., going in and out. It’s an incredible risk,” Patel said.

Patel said she sees the White House in the “same vein” as a hospital where critical medical personnel are working during the pandemic. She argued that the White House should have a similar protocol to the standard set for “critical hospitals,” including testing for everyone in the complex, “universal masking” and more accurate infrared scans for temperature checks rather than just thermometers.

Reporters at the White House were tested for the coronavirus on April 9 in response to a suspected case in the press corps. The testing protocol did not continue beyond that. There have been three suspected cases of the coronavirus among members of the press corps who have been to the White House, though two tested negative. 

Basic social distancing and face covering guidelines are not being followed by many at the White House. Trump himself regularly appears at briefings and other events unmasked and with other officials standing close by his side. At a press briefing on April 3, the day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its recommendation on face coverings, Trump was asked why he was not wearing a mask. 

President Trump, flanked by HHS Secretary Alex Azar, left, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Robert Redfield, at the CDC in Atlanta on March 6. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

“I just don’t want to wear one myself. It’s a recommendation. … I’m feeling good,” Trump said, adding, “I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute desk … I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens … I don’t see it for myself.”

While the CDC guidelines are indeed a recommendation without legal force, they are not dependent on whether someone feels sick or not. They specifically note that the virus, which has killed more than 67,000 people in the U.S. so far, can be spread by those who “are not exhibiting symptoms.” The mask recommendation, staying 6 feet apart and the prohibitions on large gatherings are aimed at “slowing the spread of the virus.” 

“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms,” the guidelines say.

And Trump isn’t the only one who isn’t wearing a mask at the White House. Masks are not mandatory in the complex, and on multiple visits last week there were staffers, members of the Secret Service and the press who were not wearing them. Asked about the lack of masks, Deere echoed the president’s characterization of the CDC guidelines as a recommendation. 

“Per the CDC guidelines, the use of nonmedical face coverings is a voluntary measure. Face coverings are not required, but staff and press are welcome to follow that guidance,” Deere said. 

Reporters get a sticker from a Secret Service agent once they are cleared to cover the administration’s daily coronavirus briefing at the White House after having their temperature checked, March 17. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Deere referred questions about Secret Service agents not wearing masks to that agency. Secret Service spokeswoman Justine Whelan responded to a question about why Secret Service agents and officers are not all wearing masks with a statement saying the agency is “working with all of our public safety partners and the White House Medical Unit to ensure the safety and security of both our protected persons and our employees.” 

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether any staffers at the complex have tested positive for the virus. Whelan declined to answer a question about how many members of the Secret Service have been diagnosed. 

“To protect the privacy of our employees’ health information and for operational security, the Secret Service is not releasing how many of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19, nor how many of its employees were, or currently are, quarantined,” she said. 

The White House Correspondents’ Association, which runs the press pool, has taken steps to minimize exposure to the press corps, including implementing a restricted rotation that allows for extra space in the briefing room and fewer people in the Oval Office. However, the Trump administration has repeatedly invited Chanel Rion, a reporter for the pro-Trump One America News network, to come into the briefing room for events in defiance of the limits the Correspondents’ Association has attempted to impose. 

And access to the White House has even been expanded. Trump shifted away from his coronavirus task force press conferences in the White House briefing room in the past week and held two events in the East Room. Those events included unmasked guests whose seats were spaced. But behind them, reporters and cameramen who are part of the rotation that goes into the Oval Office for events were packed in nearly shoulder to shoulder. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci makes remarks as President Trump and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards look on in the Oval Office, April 29. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via Getty Images)

The White House’s lax attitude toward masks and social distancing comes as there has been a stark partisan divide when it comes to coronavirus precautions. Conservative pundits and protesters have balked at the lockdowns in many states and suggested that normal activity must resume to avoid further economic damage. On Capitol Hill, as Congress has implemented revised procedures for safety, a group of Republican members pointedly refused to wear masks. Trump has suggested there is enough testing capacity for Congress to operate safely and has repeatedly admonished Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not reconvening. 

“There is tremendous CoronaVirus testing capacity in Washington for the Senators returning to Capital Hill on Monday. Likewise the House, which should return but isn’t because of Crazy Nancy P.,” the president tweeted on Saturday.

Patel, the doctor who worked in the Obama administration, said that in addition to the concerns about the physical safety of Trump and other officials, it is important for the White House to model best practices in order to encourage the public to follow suit. 

“It’s actually the symbolic nature of what it is for America. It’s clear in our country, we’re not comfortable wearing masks. … We’re not Asia. It’s not something we do,” she said, adding that “at a minimum” she would like to see the health professionals who appear with Trump at events wearing masks and maintaining proper distance. 

The White House’s casual attitude toward masks also made headlines on April 28 when Vice President Mike Pence visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Pence did not wear a mask even though it is clinic policy for everyone in the building to wear one. His staff had been informed of the policy. After his visit, Pence said he did not need to wear a mask.

Vice President Mike Pence visits a patient who survived the coronavirus during a tour of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., April 28. (Jim Mone/AP)

“As vice president of the United States I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus,” he said.

However, on April 30, when Pence toured a General Motors facility in Indiana, he opted to wear a mask. Yahoo News asked the vice president’s office if he would be wearing masks going forward. An official responded that his decision to wear a mask was due to General Motors policy and indicated it might not be necessary for Pence to wear one in the future. 

“Vice President Pence respects the GM policy, but the face covering guidelines were intended to prevent asymptotic [sic] spread,” the official said in an email. “Vice President Pence is continually tested to ensure he is negative and remains healthy.”

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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