After Gridiron Dinner, a covid outbreak among Washington A-list guests

Among the prominent Washington figures who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus after attending the Gridiron Dinner are Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, (D-Calif.). (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Charles Krupa/AP; Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle/AP)
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WASHINGTON - More than a dozen guests who attended Saturday night's Gridiron Club dinner - including two Cabinet members, two members of Congress and a top aide to Vice President Harris - have since tested positive for coronavirus, sending ripples of anxiety through a city on the cusp of restarting its traditional social whirl after a two-year pause.

A-list guests were asked to show proof of vaccination but not negative tests, and many mingled freely without masks at the dinner at the downtown Renaissance Washington Hotel.

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But by Wednesday, Reps. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., and Joaquin Castro, D-Texas and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo had announced they had tested positive. They were soon followed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who requested a test Wednesday afternoon after learning he may have been exposed - and discovered that he, too, carried the virus. Thus far, none have reported serious illness.

Jamal Simmons, the communications director for Vice President Harris, said later Wednesday he, too, had tested positive and is now isolating at home. But since he had been in close contact with Harris, she would also be consulting with a physician, her press secretary said.

The Washington Post has learned of about a half-dozen journalists as well as members of the White House and National Security Council staffs who said they tested positive after the event. Their names are being withheld because they have not announced their status publicly.

Tom DeFrank, a contributing columnist for National Journal and president of the Gridiron Club, said that as of Wednesday afternoon, the group knew of 14 guests who had tested positive.

"There is no way of being certain about when they first contracted covid," he said in a statement. "But they did interact with other guests during the night and we have to be realistic and expect some more cases."

About half of the cases appeared to have been clustered at three tables, he said, and the club was taking steps to notify anyone who sat next to or across from the infected guests.

How many of the infections began at the dinner and how serious the outbreak will prove to be remains unclear. Many of the guests have jobs that require regular testing that catches some asymptomatic cases. Castro and Raimondo said they are suffering only mild symptoms while Schiff said he is "feeling fine" - and touted the value of vaccinations and boosters.

But the outbreak at the Gridiron - where some of the comic skits featured actors dressed as the coronavirus, like large, green bouncing balls with red frills - highlights the personal risk-benefit balancing act much of the country will be negotiating as the pandemic subsides.

Administration officials and many experts have said that, more than two years into the pandemic, individuals now have the tools they need to decide what level of risk they're willing to tolerate - and that every social interaction, large or small, comes with a nonzero risk of covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

"The virus isn't going to go anywhere. There's not going to be any activity that isn't going to have some level of covid risk associated with it," said Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease doctor and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "People are out at bars every day. People are having dinners, watching sports games, doing whatever they want but when it happens to a celebrity or politician, then it becomes something you have to talk about."

Several of the White House aides who tested positive did so after traveling to Poland last week with President Biden and before the Gridiron dinner. White House press secretary Jen Psaki - who attended the Gridiron dinner - reiterated Wednesday that all White House employees who come in proximity to Biden are regularly tested.

Biden didn't attend the dinner but appeared via video.

The white-tie-and-gowns dinner attracted about 630 guests, including members of Congress, the Cabinet, diplomatic corps, military and business.

Among those in attendance were Anthony S. Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert and Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other guests included Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Edward Markey, D-Mass.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Reps. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.; agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and special presidential envoy John Kerry; Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell; Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, both Republicans, and New York mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat.

The possibility that senators at the dinner were infected could conceivably delay a Senate vote to confirm Biden's Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson. A vote could come later this week; no delays have been announced.

The dinner's guest list also included former NFL great Emmitt Smith; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver; CBS host Jane Pauley and her spouse, "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau; Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova; "Face the Nation" host Margaret Brennan, PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff; ABC chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl, and Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan and editor Sally Buzbee.

After a predinner cocktail reception, guests sat together at long, narrow tables for hours and watched satirical skits and songs performed by members. At the event's conclusion, guests joined hands for the traditional singing of "Auld Lang Syne."

The dinner was supposed to reflect a return to normalcy after being canceled the past two years because of the pandemic. Few guests wore masks or observed social distancing, according to people in attendance. Only the serving staff was consistently masked throughout the evening. While organizers asked attendees to show their vaccination cards at the door, there was no requirement to be tested.

The evening's sketches, performed by veteran Washington journalists, parodied figures in both parties, although Republicans - such as former president Trump, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Paul Gosar of Arizona, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas - came in for the sharpest jabs. None of those figures were in attendance.

At one point, a performer dressed as Fauci sang from the stage to the real Fauci in the audience: "Doctor, doctor, give me some clues, we've got a bad case of covid blues."

The Gridiron dinner is a smaller, more elite precursor to the better-known White House Correspondents' Association gathering in late April. That organization's president, Steven Portnoy, said earlier this week that it will require its dinner's 2,600 guests to show a same-day negative coronavirus test, which they will be able to upload to an app.

The president typically attends the WHCA dinner, though Trump never did during his years in the White House. Biden has not yet announced his plans.

The Gridiron Club dinner appears to have been conducted with respect to the latest official guidelines for covid safety.

The CDC updated its guidelines on Feb. 25 to ease mask recommendations for the vast majority of the country, and all 50 states have lifted their mask mandates in recent weeks. More than 95% of the country, including Washington, D.C., is classified by the CDC as having a low burden of disease, meaning the agency does not recommend a mask mandate.

But some experts have cautioned that the new CDC guidelines could leave the country unprepared in the event of another wave. The BA.2 variant caused a sharp rise in cases in Europe and has become the dominant strain in the United States, although cases have not yet begun rising nationally. Some parts of the country, including the Northeast, are beginning to experience a modest increase in infections.

Outbreaks from events such as the Gridiron dinner could signal what is to come, said Abraar Karan, an infectious-disease physician at Stanford University. "You'll have these big outbreaks that start slowly and then you'll notice more of them. It's not surprising to me there was this big outbreak at a gathering where people were testing afterward," Karan said.

"We're constantly testing the boundaries. Everybody is testing the boundaries a little bit. . . . We're trying to see what's a tolerable level of risk, but when you have a big outbreak, that makes everybody pause," Karan said.

Fauci, who said he has not tested positive, said he abided by CDC guidelines when deciding to attend the dinner. He said he made a personal decision that the risk of attending was low for three reasons: He is vaccinated and boosted, there was a requirement for proof of vaccination to enter the dinner, and Washington, D.C., is classified as having a low burden of disease by the CDC's metrics. That classification also means individuals can go unmasked in indoor settings.

Fauci said he wore his mask during the reception but took it off to eat.

"We are in a situation where, as a population, we need to make a decision that is based on data as well as our own individual willingness to take whatever level of risk happens to be present that you're making the decision about," Fauci said. "I followed the CDC guidelines, which says it's okay to be in an indoor setting without a mask. But if cases go up and CDC says now wait a minute, you're in a red zone, you can be darn sure I won't be going to any dinners. You go with what the situation is."

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The Washington Post's Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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