By Wednesday morning, Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo had announced they had received positive results on coronavirus tests after attending the dinner at the downtown Renaissance Washington Hotel. 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.
Jamal Simmons, the communications director for Vice President Harris, also said Wednesday he had tested positive and is now isolating at home. But since he had been in close contact with Harris, she, too, would be consulting with a physician, her press secretary said.
In addition, about a half-dozen as well as members of the White House and National Security Council staffs said they tested positive after the event. Their names are being withheld because they have not announced their status publicly.
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, and all the guests were required to show proof of vaccination. Castro and Raimondo said they are suffering only mild symptoms while Schiff said he is “feeling fine” — and touted the value of vaccinates 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 make about what level of risk they’re willing to tolerate — and that every social interaction, large or small, comes with a non-zero 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 employees that all White House who come in proximity to Biden are regularly tested.
Biden didn’t attend the dinner but appeared via video.
At the Gridiron dinner, a Republican governor roasted Trump
Tom DeFrank, a contributing editor at the National Journal and the president of the Gridiron Club, said in a statement that dinner guests were required to show proof of vaccination but that “a small number of our guests have reported positive tests since then.”
“We wish them a speedy recovery,” he said.
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 J. Markey (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri); Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.); Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and special presidential envoy John F. Kerry; Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell; Govs. Larry Hogan (R) of Maryland and Chris Sununu (R) of New Hampshire; and New York Mayor Eric Adams (D).
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 protects, parodied figures in both parties, although Republicans — such as 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.) — 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 percent of the country, including DC, 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 DC 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.”
Staff writer Tyler Pager contributed to this report.
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