Coronavirus Cases Among Boldface Names Have Washington Feeling Uneasy

Washington memo

A spate of positive coronavirus tests among top officials is a reminder that, even amid an attempt to pivot away from strict restrictions, the pandemic is not over.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland last month. He said on Wednesday that he had tested positive for the virus, just hours after he delivered a news briefing at the Justice Department.
Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Katie Rogers

WASHINGTON — “What are you hearing about the Gridiron?”

A version of that text message blazed across Washington phones this week as the Gridiron Club dinner, an annual black-tie roast between journalists and presidential administrations held over the weekend, has quickly devolved from a swampy cross-pollination party into an event where a lot of boldface names appear to have caught the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, two Biden administration officials who attended the dinner, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, said they had tested positive for the virus. Neither was determined to be in close contact with President Biden, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as someone less than six feet away for more than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.

The positive tests are a reminder that, even as officials seek to pivot away from strict restrictions and encourage Americans to learn to live with the coronavirus, the pandemic is not over, driven by the emergence of a new, highly contagious subvariant whose spread is alarming experts.

Mr. Biden did not attend the Gridiron, but he has appeared, mask-free, at several events this week, even as cases rise inside his administration, among lawmakers, in the news media and throughout the capital. His maskless appearance also calls into question the safety protocols that stand between a 79-year-old president and a wily virus that is adept at evading even stringent safety measures.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday that the White House continued to follow C.D.C. guidelines and mask guidance issued by the District of Columbia.

“I would say we take additional measures that go beyond what the C.D.C. protocols and requirements are to ensure that we are doing everything we can to keep the principals safe,” Ms. Psaki said, “the president, the vice president and others, of course, in the building.”

According to several officials familiar with protocols, officials who come into close contact with Mr. Biden regularly are tested more often. Mr. Biden holds socially distant meetings with aides when possible, and people who meet with him in the White House are tested. But that does not apply to what Ms. Psaki said are “public” events, where Mr. Biden can mingle with invitees in group settings.

One of those occurred on Tuesday, when Mr. Biden welcomed former President Barack Obama to a crowded East Room, where the two men delivered speeches about the longevity of the Affordable Care Act and circulated among supporters. Ms. Psaki said attendees had not been tested for the coronavirus.

The Biden administration has said it has rigorous contact-tracing protocols in place, but the timing of when officials have taken tests after their exposure to the virus has been unclear in several cases.

The announcement about Mr. Garland came just hours after he delivered a news briefing at the Justice Department at 10 a.m., where he stood unmasked next to several other officials, including Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director.

Image

Credit…Sarah Silbiger for The New York Times

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said in a statement that he had asked to be tested after learning that he had been exposed to the virus. Ms. Raimondo said she had used an at-home antigen test. Both are vaccinated and boosted.

Jamal Simmons, Vice President Kamala Harris’s communications director, also tested positive for the virus on Wednesday, according to a White House statement. He will be isolating and working from home, but Mr. Simmons was in close contact to Ms. Harris. She will consult with her physician and plans to continue with her public schedule.

Ms. Psaki has contracted the virus twice, and returned to the podium last week after her second bout. Her deputy, Karine Jean-Pierre, is out with the virus. Other administration officials have contracted the virus and have not announced it.

This week, Representatives Joaquin Castro of Texas and Adam B. Schiff of California, both Democrats, said they had tested positive after attending the Gridiron. Other Democrats who did not attend the dinner have announced positive tests, including Representative Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts, the assistant House speaker, and Representative Scott Peters of California.

Aside from the Gridiron, journalists and administration officials who attended a number of other parties and events have reported that they had contracted the virus. A going-away party for Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, last week turned back several positive cases among attendees, including journalists.

The spread has also affected the book party circuit: A celebration for Valerie Biden Owens, the president’s sister, was postponed on Wednesday.

But the White House Correspondents Dinner is the next big party on the horizon, and is still on as of now, according to an email from Steven Portnoy, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. The dinner will require a same-day coronavirus test result, according to a planning email. The White House has not said if Mr. Biden will attend.

The president was last tested for the virus on Monday and tested negative, a White House official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said on Wednesday, adding that he should be tested again this week.

Isabella Grullón Paz, Zach Montague and Lauren McCarthy contributed reporting.

Read More

Katie Rogers