After Gridiron dinner, covid outbreak among Washington A-list guests

More than a dozen guests who attended Saturday night’s Gridiron Club dinner — including two Cabinet members, two members of Congress and a senior Vice President Harris aide — have since tested positive for the coronavirus, sending ripples of anxiety in a city set to restart its traditional social whirlwind after a two-year hiatus.

List A guests were asked to show proof of vaccination but no negative tests, and many mingled freely without masks during dinner at the downtown Renaissance Washington Hotel.

But on Wednesday, Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-California) and Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced they had tested positive. They were soon followed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who requested a test on Wednesday afternoon after learning he may have been exposed – and found he too had the virus. So far, none have reported serious illness.

Jamal Simmons, Vice President Harris’ communications director, said later Wednesday that he too had tested positive and was now self-isolating at home. But since he had been in close contact with Harris, she would also seek medical attention, her publicist said.

The Washington Post has learned that about half a dozen reporters as well as White House and National Security Council staffers said they tested positive after the event. Their names are withheld as they have not publicly announced their status.

Tom DeFrank, contributing columnist for the 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 to be certain when they first contracted covid,” he said in a statement. “But they interacted with other guests overnight and we have to be realistic and expect more cases.”

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

The number of infections that started at dinner and the severity of the outbreak are unclear. Many guests have jobs that require regular testing that detects some asymptomatic cases. Castro and Raimondo said they were only suffering from mild symptoms while Schiff said he was “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 up as coronaviruses, like big green bouncing balls with red frills – highlights the personal balance between risk and benefit that much of the country will negotiate as the pandemic subsides.

Administration officials and numerous experts have said that, more than two years into the pandemic, individuals now have the tools they need to decide how much risk they are willing to tolerate — and that every social interaction, big or small, comes with a non-zero risk of covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

“The virus is not going anywhere. There won’t be any activity that doesn’t have some level of covid risk associated with it,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “People go out to bars every day. People eat dinner, watch sports, do whatever they want, but when it happens to a celebrity or a politician, it becomes something 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 on Wednesday that all White House employees who are in close proximity to Biden are regularly tested.

Biden did not attend the dinner but appeared via video.

At the Gridiron dinner, a Republican governor roasted Trump

The dinner in white robes drew about 630 guests, including members of Congress, Cabinet, the diplomatic corps, the military and businessmen.

Among those present were 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 the senses. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.); Representatives Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.); Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Presidential Special Envoy John F. Kerry; Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell; Govt. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) and Chris Sununu (RN.H.); and New York Mayor Eric Adams (D).

The possibility that senators at the dinner were infected could potentially delay a Senate vote to confirm Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson. A vote could take place later this week; no delays were announced.

The dinner guest list also included former NFL great Emmitt Smith; NBA commissioner Adam Silver; CBS host Jane Pauley and her husband, “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau; Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova; “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan, PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff; ABC Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl and Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan and Managing Editor Sally Buzbee.

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

The dinner was meant to reflect a return to normalcy after being canceled for the past two years due to the pandemic. Few guests wore masks or observed social distancing, according to those in attendance. Only the service staff were systematically masked throughout the evening. While organizers asked attendees to show their vaccination cards at the door, there was no requirement to get tested.

The evening’s skits, performed by veteran Washington reporters, parodied figures from both parties, though Republicans — such as former President Donald Trump, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Lauren Boebert (Colo. ) and Paul A. Gosar (Arizona), former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and senses Ted Cruz (Texas) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) – received the sharpest blows. None of these personalities 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 have 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 he would require all 2,600 guests at his dinner party to present a negative coronavirus test on the day, which they can upload to an app.

The president usually attends the WHCA dinner, although Trump never did during his years in the White House. Biden has yet to announce his plans.

The Gridiron Club dinner appears to have been held in accordance with the latest official covid safety guidelines.

The CDC updated its guidelines on Feb. 25 to relax 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 DC, is classified by the CDC as having a low disease burden, which means the agency does not recommend a mask mandate.

But some experts have warned that the CDC’s new guidelines could leave the country off guard in the event of a new surge. The BA.2 variant has 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 starting to see an uptick in infections.

Outbreaks of events such as the Gridiron Dinner could signal what’s to come, said Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University. “You will have these big epidemics that start slowly and then you will notice others. It’s no surprise to me that there was this big outbreak at a gathering where people got tested afterwards,” Karan said.

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

Fauci, who said he did not test positive, said he followed CDC guidelines when deciding whether 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 disease burden by the CDC measures. This classification also means that individuals can unmask in indoor environments.

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

“We are in a situation where as a population we have to make a decision based on data as well as our own individual willingness to take whatever level of risk is present for which you make the decision,” Fauci said. . “I followed CDC guidelines, which say it’s okay to be in an indoor setting without a mask. But if cases spike and the CDC now 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.

Writer Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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