As President Joe Biden sat at a signing desk in a crowded room at the White House on Wednesday, he was flanked by lawmakers who stood shoulder to shoulder to celebrate a rare bipartisan win: a new law that will modernize the US Postal Service.
Had it taken place at nearly any other time, the perfunctory event in Washington might have come and gone. But in the age of a pandemic, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s close proximity to the President during the signing – just a day before she would announce that she had tested positive for Covid-19 – has triggered alarm.
And elsewhere in Washington, a slew of cases among political partygoers illustrates the push and pull between returning back to “normal” life and continuing efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told CNN’s John Berman Friday that it is “possible” Biden will eventually contract Covid-19, but she added the White House continues to take precautions.
“The President is certainly living his life, just as you say all Americans across the country are – while taking precautions, while ensuring that we’re following CDC guidance,” she said.
While Covid case numbers in Washington and around the country remain low, a rash of cases among high-profile lawmakers and notable figures in the nation’s capital has led to increased scrutiny on the administration’s Covid protocols.
Vice President Kamala Harris, in particular, is in the spotlight for her seeming disregard of US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for those who were exposed to Covid-19. Her communications director, Jamal Simmons, tested positive after attending the annual Gridiron Club Dinner, one of at least 37 people who have tested positive following the event where members of the press hobnob with prominent Washington officials.
Simmons was a close contact of the vice president, the White House said in a statement. A close contact is defined by the CDC as being within 6 feet for a cumulative total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. While Harris did not need to quarantine because of Simmons’ positive test, the White House said that she would follow CDC guidance for close contacts.
But on Thursday, as she presided over the confirmation vote for incoming Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the vice president was seen maskless at the Senate dais. Harris sometimes could be seen putting her hand up, as if to request a senator not approach too closely, but there were times when individuals, masked and unmasked, did approach her.
The CDC recommends that people who are exposed to Covid and are up-to-date on vaccinations be tested at least five days after the close contact as well as wear masks around other people for 10 days following the contact. The guidelines do not say that person can be maskless around others if they are practicing social distancing.
A White House official, responding to questions about why Harris had not been wearing a mask inside the Senate chamber during the vote, said the vice president had consulted with a White House physician, was “practicing social distancing” and had “limited and brief interactions from her chair.”
Asked earlier whether Harris had breached protocol by remaining unmasked inside the chamber, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she had not done “further analysis” and noted that the vice president was sitting on a dais slightly away from the Senate floor.
She later said Harris would follow CDC protocols at other events, such as the celebration at the White House for Jackson’s confirmation. The President and vice president have continued to test negative for Covid-19 and have both received their second Covid-19 vaccine booster doses in recent days.
Testing Biden’s bubble
The President, who is 79 years old, is at an increased risk for a more severe case of Covid-19 because of his age, although the CDC says older adults who are up-to-date on vaccines and boosters significantly reduce their risk of hospitalization and death.
Biden’s bubble, the White House maintains, goes beyond the CDC’s guidelines to insulate him from potential infection – testing individuals close to him and implementing physical distancing when possible. And yet, as this week’s events have transpired, the limits of the White House bubble have been tested – with Covid currently affecting at least four individuals in the line of succession to the President to varying degrees.
Officials and visitors have not been required to wear masks or socially distance at large White House events since the CDC updated its new metrics to guide Covid-19 restrictions such as mask-wearing in late February. Covid cases in Washington have declined since their peak in early January, when the country was facing a wave of Omicron variant cases.
The White House says that only individuals who are in “close contact” with Biden are tested immediately before meeting or attending events with him, and that not everyone who attended Wednesday’s event on the Postal Service was tested. It also says additional testing protocols for Biden will be up to his doctors.
Pelosi, along with other members of Congress at the White House on Wednesday, tested negative ahead of the signing event.
She and the dinner attendees who have tested positive are not considered to be close contacts of the President. Those dinner attendees include Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo; Attorney General Merrick Garland; Simmons; first lady Jill Biden’s press secretary, Michael LaRosa; Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas; Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California; Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine; and the President’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens.
Even with the spate of positive tests and apparent close calls for the President, the White House is moving forward with normal events – on Friday, Biden will hold an outdoor celebration for Jackson’s confirmation.
The reception has already drawn some parallels to Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination announcement in the White House Rose Garden in late September 2020, which ended up being a likely Covid-19 superspreader event, and preceded then-President Donald Trump’s Covid-related hospitalization by less than a week.
The Biden White House has noted, importantly, that unlike at the time of Barrett’s reception, Americans now have wide access to Covid-19 vaccines.
“At that point in time, vaccines weren’t available. People were not vaccinated. It certainly puts us in a different space,” Psaki said on Thursday, emphasizing that Friday’s event will be outdoors.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Kate Bennett, Jasmine Wright, MJ Lee, Nikki Carvajal and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.