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

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

It was supposed to be an evening of light-hearted political satire and bipartisan camaraderie among an elite cadre of journalists and politicians, just as it has been for nearly a century and a half, and a return to Washington’s traditional social maelstrom after two years. pause.

Instead, Saturday’s annual Gridiron dinner may ultimately be best remembered for a potential coronavirus flare up among your A-list guests.

On Wednesday morning, Representatives Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joaquín Castro (D-Tex.) and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo had announced that they had received positive coronavirus test results after attending dinner at downtown’s Renaissance Washington Hotel. They were soon followed by the Attorney General Merrick Garland, who requested a test Wednesday afternoon after learning that he may have been exposed, and discovered that he, too, was carrying the virus.

Jamal Simmons, communications director for Vice President Harris, also said Wednesday that he had tested positive and is now isolating at home. But since he had been in close contact with Harris, she would also see a doctor, his press secretary said.

Additionally, about a half-dozen journalists, as well as White House and National Security Council staffers, said they tested positive after the event. Their names are being withheld because they have not publicly announced their status.

It is not yet clear how many of the infections started at dinner and how serious the outbreak will be. Many of the guests have jobs that require regular testing that catches some asymptomatic cases, and all guests were required to show proof of vaccination. Castro and Raimondo said they are only experiencing mild symptoms, while Schiff said he is “feel good” —and touted the value of vaccinations and boosters.

But the outbreak at the Gridiron, where some of the comedy skits featured actors dressed as the coronavirus, as big bouncing green balls with red ruffles, highlights the personal risk-reward balancing act that much of the country will negotiate as the pandemic subsides.

Administration officials and many experts have said that, more than two years into the pandemic, people now have the tools they need to determine what level of risk they are willing to tolerate, and that every social interaction, big or small, It comes with a non-zero risk of covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

“The virus is not going anywhere. There’s not going to be any activity that doesn’t have some level of Covid risk associated with it,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “People are in bars. daily. People have dinner, they watch sports games, they do what they want, but when it happens to a celebrity or a politician, it becomes something you have to talk about.”

Several of the White House aides who have 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 become close to Biden are regularly tested.

Biden did not attend the dinner but appeared by video.

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Tom DeFrank, a contributing editor at the National Journal and president of the Gridiron Club, said in a statement that dinner guests were required to show proof of vaccination, but “a small number of our guests have since reported positive results.”

“We wish them a speedy recovery,” he said.

The white-tie gala dinner drew some 630 guests, including members of Congress, the Cabinet, the diplomatic corps, the military and businessmen.

Attendees included Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other guests included Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.), and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri). ; Representatives Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.); Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Special Presidential Envoy John F. Kerry; Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell; Governors Larry Hogan (R) of Maryland and Chris Sununu (R) of New Hampshire; and New York Mayor Eric Adams (D).

The possibility that the senators at the dinner were infected could possibly 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 guest list also included former NFL star Emmitt Smith; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver; CBS anchor Jane Pauley and her husband, “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau; the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova; “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan, PBS NewsHour host Judy Woodruff; ABC’s chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl and Washington Post editor Fred Ryan and editor Sally Buzbee.

After a pre-dinner cocktail party, guests sat together at long, narrow tables for hours and watched satirical plays and songs performed by the members. At the end of the event, the guests joined in the traditional singing of “Auld Lang Syne”.

The dinner was supposed to reflect a return to normalcy after being canceled the last two years due to the pandemic. Few guests wore masks or observed social distancing, according to people present. Only the service staff were constantly masked throughout the night. While organizers asked attendees to show their vaccination cards at the door, there was no requirement to get tested.

The night’s skits, by veteran Washington journalists, parodied figures from both parties, though Republicans like former President Donald Trump, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.), former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) struck the sharpest blows. None of those figures were present.

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 more well-known gathering of the White House Correspondents’ Association in late April. That organization’s president, Steven Portnoy, said earlier this week that it will require all 2,600 of its dinner guests to show a negative coronavirus test on the same day, which they can upload to an app.

The president regularly attends the WHCA dinner, although 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 held in regards to the latest official guidelines for covid safety.

The CDC updated its guidelines on February 25 to make mask recommendations easier for the vast majority of the country, and all 50 states have lifted their mask mandates in recent weeks. More than 95 percent of the country, including DC, is classified by the CDC as having a low burden of disease, meaning the agency does not recommend mandatory mask wearing.

But some experts have warned that the new CDC guidelines could leave the country unprepared in the event of another wave. the ba Variant 2 caused a sharp increase in cases in Europe and has become the dominant strain in the United States, although cases have not yet started to increase nationally. Some parts of the country, including the Northeast, are beginning to see a modest increase in infections.

Outbreaks from events like the Gridiron dinner could signal things to come, said Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University. “You’ll have these big breakouts that start slowly and then you’ll notice more of them. I’m not surprised there was this big outbreak at a gathering where people were getting tested afterwards,” Karan said.

“We are constantly testing the limits. Everyone is testing the limits a bit. … We are trying to see what is a tolerable level of risk, but when you have a big outbreak, that makes everyone stop,” Karan said.

Fauci, who said he did not test positive, said he followed CDC guidelines when he decided 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 proof of vaccination requirement to enter the dinner, and DC is classified as having a low burden of disease by the metrics of the CDC. That classification also means that people can unmask 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 the data, as well as our own individual willingness to take whatever level of risk is present on who is making the decision.” Fauci said. “I followed the CDC guidelines, which say it’s okay to be indoors without a mask. But if cases go up and the CDC says wait a minute, you’re in a red zone, you can be sure I’m not going to any dinners. You go with what the situation is.”

Staff Writer Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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