WASHINGTON – It’s the season for holiday gatherings, both official and informal. But it’s also still very much pandemic season, and COVID-19 infection numbers are setting records in the nation’s capital.
The District of Columbia government faces a unique challenge in balancing those two factors, as the capital is riddled with federal government property, where the D.C. government has limited enforcement powers.
President Donald Trump's administration has pushed ahead with as many as two dozen holiday events, including Thursday night’s Congressional Ball. The D.C. Health Department can’t do much more than track the numbers and hope its virus guidelines are being followed.
The first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are expected to arrive soon, with the first batch reserved for health care professionals and first responders. But health officials warn that it could be months before the vaccine is readily available to the general population, and the average case rate in Washington has set records every day for the past week.
Last month, with virus numbers on the rise, Mayor Muriel Bowser dialed up the city's virus restrictions, limiting the size of indoor gatherings to 10 people. But the White House and other federal properties are not required to comply with those rules. Similarly, any COVID-19 protocol violations happening inside Washington's many foreign embassies or consulates would be outside the D.C. government's jurisdiction.
On Wednesday night, Trump hosted about 200 guests at the White House for the annual Hanukkah celebration. Photos and videos posted on social media showed most, but not all, attendees wearing masks and guests crowding tightly together to witness a brief speech by a maskless Trump.
On Thursday night, Trump was scheduled to attend and give remarks at the annual Congressional Ball. When asked this week about whether such activities were wise in the midst of a pandemic, Trump said he believed the events could be held safely.
"Well, they’re Christmas parties, and frankly, we’ve reduced the number very substantially, as you know. And I see a lot of people at the parties wearing masks. I mean, I would say that I look out at the audience at those parties, and we have a lot of people wearing masks, and I think that’s a good thing," he said.
The Bowser administration did not respond to requests for comment on the holiday gatherings. But her government has repeatedly called for residents to skip traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings this year.
Over the course of the pandemic, the D.C. government has found itself at odds with the White House, which operated for months in open violation of mask protocols and local virus restrictions. At least one event — a Sept. 26 Rose Garden gathering for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barret — was later labeled a superspreader after multiple attendees tested positive.
Bowser's government has generally avoided direct confrontations with the Trump White House over virus protocols. But after the Rose Garden event, the D.C. Health Department took the extraordinary step of publicly complaining that vital contact tracing from the event had been insufficient.
Trump himself contracted the virus in October and was briefly hospitalized.
The State Department, led by Trump stalwart Mike Pompeo, has also scheduled a series of indoor holiday gatherings. A statement released by the State Department said all events followed local guidance and the department’s own “Diplomacy Strong” virus protocols. That included a mask requirement for all attendees and temperature checks at the entrances.
“We’ve taken every precaution to thin out the number of individuals,” the statement said. “We do not anticipate any problems in monitoring the number of individuals in these indoor spaces."
The statement noted that the sheer number of events was partially a reflection of that diligence, as normally large events were being broken up in multiple smaller gatherings to limit the crowds.
But the American Foreign Service Association, which represent career diplomats, said it was “very concerned” by the plans.
“Celebrating the season by spending time with friends, colleagues and family is a time-honored tradition, but this year has to be different due to the pandemic,” the association said in a statement. “We urge the Department to reverse course and model responsible behavior in accordance with its own guidelines.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar suggested that partying during a pandemic isn’t forbidden, as long as revelers follow the public health advice about wearing face coverings, washing their hands and watching how close they get to other people.
“You can engage in things, but wear your mask if you’re not going to be socially distant,” he told CNN in an interview Wednesday.
Azar said he felt “comfortable” at a recent White House party, although photos of those gatherings posted on social media have shown well-dressed guests packed into Christmas tree-lined hallways and few of them wearing face masks.
“I felt safe," Azar said. "I wore my mask, of course, at all times.”
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.