White House again flouts public health recommendations during holiday party season

The White House flouts public health recommendations during the holiday party season. By Kate Bennett, Kristen Holmes and Betsy Klein, CNN

(CNN) -- The White House kicked off its holiday party season on Monday, marking the start of more than a dozen festive group gatherings, even as the coronavirus pandemic ravages the country.

There are some safety protocols in place for the events, but most, if not all, of the holiday parties will still flout US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for size restrictions, as well as Washington, DC, restrictions for indoor gatherings, which is currently capped at 10 people.

The Trump White House itself has already been the epicenter of at least three Covid-19 outbreaks among staff and allies, and a series of events such as holiday gatherings will likely put in peril several hundred more guests, workers and staff.

Hours after White House Christmas decorations were unveiled, first lady Melania Trump hosted a "thank you" party and tour for several dozen of the volunteers who helped decorate the people's house for the season, a White House official confirmed to CNN.

The volunteers, who traveled to the White House for the week from across the country, were tested as part of guidelines for decorating. However, publicly accessible social media images posted by partygoers indicate there was little social distancing at Monday's event and many guests were not wearing masks.

They clustered together tightly in the White House Cross Hall foyer, cell phones up to capture images of Melania Trump speaking from a podium at a staircase landing, in the social media posts viewed by CNN.

In the State Dining Room, guests milled around and sat at round tables sipping champagne and nibbling snacks. In the Red Room, they admired the tree with ornaments saluting essential workers, including doctors, nurses and scientists, many removing their masks as they held beverages.

Many of the volunteers posed for photos smiling without masks in front of the trees they spent the holiday weekend trimming.

Another upcoming holiday event is the Congressional Ball, set to take place December 10, according to the official. President Donald Trump and the first lady will host the ball again this year, and as of now, more than 50 invitees have responded they will attend, a source familiar with the planning told CNN. The White House official said the Republican Party coffers will pay for the Congressional Ball. The Washington Post first reported the date the Congressional Ball will take place.

A copy of the invitation seen by CNN makes no mention of mask-wearing or other coronavirus safety precautions.

That party comes in the wake of Brian Monahan, the US Congress attending physician, issuing a memo asking all members and congressional staff to practice social distancing, wear surgical masks and to avoid social gatherings.

"DO NOT ATTEND dinners, receptions, or restaurant gatherings outside of your family unit," Monahan wrote.

Dozens of lawmakers have announced they've tested positive with Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. There's also been an uptick of total cases across the country in recent months.

Additional White House holiday parties to fete the United States Secret Service will also take place this year on December 7 and 8, CNN has learned. Guests for those events have been informed that, unlike years' past, there will be no individual photo opportunities with the President and first lady, due to coronavirus guidelines.

CNN has previously reported several dozen United States Secret Service officers and agents were diagnosed with Covid-19 in the wake of the 2020 election season.

"The People's House will celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah while providing the safest environment possible. This includes smaller guest lists, masks will be required and available, social distancing encouraged while on the White House grounds, and hand sanitizer stations throughout the State Floor," Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's chief of staff, told CNN last week.

"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 added.

But, Grisham said, it will be up to invitees to decide whether to attend.

"Attending the parties will be a very personal choice. It is a longstanding tradition for people to visit and enjoy the cheer and iconic decor of the annual White House Christmas celebrations," she said.

One volunteer posted an image of a chilled glass of champagne, capped with a white paper lid bearing the seal of the President of the United States.

"Cheers!" they wrote.

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