Calls grow for State Department to cancel holiday parties due to Covid-19 spike

There are growing calls for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cancel a number of planned in-person holiday events at the State Department. By Jennifer Hansler, Nicole Gaouette and Kylie Atwood, CNN

(CNN) -- There are growing calls for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cancel a number of planned in-person holiday events amid record-breaking daily Covid-19 case counts across the United States.

Public health experts have begged individuals to stay at home to stop the surge of the deadly disease, but as CNN and other outlets reported this week, hundreds have been invited to various parties -- one of which has 900 invitees -- at the State Department and Blair House over the coming weeks.

Officials at the State Department have expressed outrage about the events, fearing they put employees' health and well-being at risk at a time when they are being told to avoid hosting gatherings and to work from home as much as possible.

"There's simply no excuse for Secretary Pompeo to host large gatherings that put the health of his employees -- and our families -- at risk," a State Department employee who works at the headquarters in Washington told CNN. "He's not just ignoring but directly undermining even the most basic guidelines from the CDC and State's own medical unit. And for what? One last chance to schmooze on the taxpayer dime?"

State Department employees have been told to maximize teleworking from Thanksgiving until January due to the pandemic, and staffers continue to receive almost daily emails from the department about Covid-19 outbreaks inside the building, sources said. But many employees still go into the building out of necessity.

"Many of us at State still report to the office several days a week to perform mission critical tasks," this person said. "The least we deserve is a safe workspace and leadership who show basic regard for our well-being."

The American Foreign Service Association, the professional association and labor union for the US foreign service, on Friday urged "the Department to reverse course and model responsible behavior in accordance with its own guidelines."

"The Department's leadership has urged embassies and consulates around the world to host only virtual holiday gatherings this year. It is therefore disconcerting to hear of these plans, which not only go against the Department's own guidelines but also health regulations in Washington, D.C. and the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," the AFSA statement said.

"While attendance at these events is not mandatory for invitees, the same is not true for State Department employees and contract catering workers. The catering workers often do not receive health insurance from their employers and must staff these events in order to keep their jobs," it noted.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also expressed apprehension about the consequences the events could have on the workers who must staff them.

"I am concerned that these parties pose a significant health risk, not only to attendees, but to the employees and workers who must staff these events, as well as to State Department employees who may feel pressured to attend. Moreover, holding these parties goes against the Department's own guidance against holding in-person events that are not 'mission critical,'" the New Jersey Democrat wrote in a letter to Pompeo dated Thursday.

"It is one thing for individuals to engage in behavior that flies in the face of CDC and public health guidelines," Menendez said. "But it is another to put employees and workers at risk, some of whom include contractors, such as catering and wait staff, who do not receive the full benefits of federal employment and may not have health insurance."

"I hope as we approach this difficult and unusual holiday season that you will put the health and well-being of Department employees and workers first, and cancel any in-person events which are clearly not 'mission critical,' nor worth risking further spread of COVID-19," he said.

Juan Pachón, communications director for the SFRC Democrats, said the department has not responded to requests for the committee to be briefed on the soirees.

Asked about the concerns expressed by AFSA and Menendez, a State Department spokesperson noted that they do not comment on congressional correspondence and pointed to safety protocols for the events.

"All attendees will be required to wear masks, and social distancing guidelines will be implemented to ensure space between attendees," the spokesperson said, though they did not explain why food and beverages would be served if masks are required.

There will also be temperature checks and guests will be contacted with "health and safety precautions" before the events that ask that they not attend if they think they have the virus or have been exposed in recent days, the spokesperson said.

"We've taken every precaution to thin out the number of individuals in all spaces at one time, and plan to keep outdoors space open and available to attendees, weather permitting," the spokesperson said.

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