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For Biden, pandemic safety starts at home: In the White House

Hunter Walker
·White House Correspondent
·6 min read
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WASHINGTON — Hours after President Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, change was already visible in the Oval Office, where Biden was photographed at the Resolute Desk, signing a pile of executive orders while wearing a black coronavirus mask. It was a stark contrast from Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who, along with his top aides, rarely wore a mask inside the White House. Biden’s use of masks in the West Wing is one of many ways he and his team say they plan to establish strict protocols in an effort to keep the White House safe and set an example for the rest of the country.

“President Biden and his administration are leading by example in following COVID-19 safety protocols, and he’s calling on all Americans to join him by taking basic steps like wearing masks and social distancing to stop the spread of the virus,” a White House spokesperson told Yahoo News.

Under Trump, the White House was the site of repeated outbreaks of COVID-19 that saw over 40 cases among staffers and top allies. The former president himself suffered an infection that put him in the hospital for three days. Among others who tested positive for the coronavirus during his time in office were first lady Melania Trump, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and multiple members of Congress who attended West Wing events. Along with eschewing masks, Trump and his team regularly held large events at the White House and on the campaign trail in defiance of local social distancing regulations. On Tuesday, the final full day of Trump’s presidency, the U.S. death toll from the pandemic reached 400,000.

Joe Biden
President Biden speaking at the White House on Thursday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

During the transition, Biden’s team said he would implement some “key measures … to create a safe workplace for every single member of White House staff,” including “mandatory masks for staff, limited numbers of people working out of the West Wing, vaccines for people who will be in close proximity to the President or Vice President, and regular testing for all staff working in the complex.” One of the executive orders Biden signed on Wednesday required masks on all federal property and lands. The following day he signed another order mandating masks in airports and on some public transportation. Trump’s administration had inconsistently promoted infection-control measures such as social distancing, but refused to impose mask mandates. Biden himself has been criticized for briefly appearing maskless at the Lincoln Memorial during the inauguration celebrations.

Asked about the new COVID protocols in the West Wing, a spokesperson pointed to comments White House press secretary Jen Psaki made in her first briefing, just hours after Wednesday’s inauguration.

“What I can speak to … of the steps we’re all taking to make sure that we are safe … those include daily testing when we’re in the White House. It includes wearing N95 masks. ... It includes stringent rules about social distancing and abiding by that in the building that keeps us safe,” Psaki said, adding, “The president has asked us to also be models to the American people, and that’s vitally important to us as well. So there are a number of new COVID steps, precautions, that we’ve put in place as of today.”

Jen Psaki
White House press secretary Jen Psaki. (Ken Cedeno/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

One of the new measures involves Psaki’s briefings. During the Trump administration, only the small group of pool reporters who accompany the president each day were given coronavirus tests. Since Biden took office, there has been universal testing for the full contingent of the press corps who come to work in the West Wing each day.

The White House spokesperson noted that many staffers are working from home and connecting with colleagues virtually. There is testing and a universal masking requirement for those who come in to work at the White House complex.

“Many of the president’s top aides, including Ron Klain, Jen Psaki, Kate Bedingfield, Jeff Zients, Cedric Richmond, Jake Sullivan and Brian Deese, are working in the West Wing and the White House campus with appropriate COVID precautions in place, including regular testing, universal masking and other safety measures. Additional aides are working from home and using a variety of tools to stay in touch and carry out their work,” the spokesperson said.

The White House is being tight-lipped about its COVID protocols. The spokesperson declined to comment on whether there is universal testing for everyone who enters the complex, the percentage of staff working from home and whether a videoconferencing system is being used. Last month, prior to Biden’s inauguration, an Associated Press report suggested that virtual meetings would be difficult since popular consumer programs like Zoom and Google Meet are prohibited on White House computers. However, Biden’s team is indeed conducting meetings via videoconferencing, though it is unclear what program they are using.

Joe Biden
Biden swears in appointees during a virtual ceremony at the White House on Wednesday. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

On Wednesday evening, the president swore in dozens of appointees and staffers who appeared on a screen in the White House dining room. A Biden White House source also confirmed meetings are being conducted via videoconference. And some public events have also gone virtual. On Thursday, first lady Jill Biden held a live-streamed event to honor the work of educators. It was one of the first wholly virtual White House events since the coronavirus pandemic began last year.

Ahead of the inauguration, Axios reported that staff in the West Wing received guidance that they would need to keep 6 feet apart. That means some offices that usually have bullpen seating would host only a single employee. The guidance also said some staff would be updated about potential opportunities for vaccination.

The Biden White House source said rooms in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which sits across from the West Wing inside the White House complex, have become solo offices as large portions of the workforce stay home.

“For the people that are in the office, we are taking precautions. We are masked, we are socially distanced. There’s one person per office,” said the source. “We’re wearing N95s, there’s hand sanitizer everywhere. Everyone here is taking the utmost caution.”

According to the source, staffers haven’t been told about plans for vaccinations.

“We’re just working,” the source said.

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