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Washington parties on, as Covid threatens to crash the festivities

Even as case numbers rise locally, thousands gather for the White House Correspondents' Dinner and a string of related gatherings for the first time since 2019.

WASHINGTON — Despite a recent rise in Covid cases, including that of Vice President Kamala Harris this week, Washington’s highest-profile figures swung into the weekend partying like it’s 2019. Almost. 

The White House Correspondents' Dinner was scheduled to be held for the first time in three years Saturday night in a hotel ballroom packed with more than 2,000 attendees, including members of Congress, top government officials, Hollywood celebrities and much of the Washington press corps. President Joe Biden will attend a portion of the event, something his predecessor refused to do over his four-year term.

Attendees are required to show proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test before entering the dinner, but there will be no mask requirement or social distancing. While Biden will take some precautions, skipping dinner and likely wearing a mask when he’s not speaking, White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged that the 79-year-old president has weighed the potential downside of attending a large indoor gathering.


“Just like anything, it’s a risk assessment and a decision he made on a personal basis,” Psaki said Wednesday.

The dinner was scheduled to be the apex of a weekend of glitzy Washington events that include cocktail parties at high-end restaurants, brunches in stately mansions and late-night dancing to DJs at the Kennedy Center. Each soiree has its own Covid requirements, with some requiring just proof of vaccination and others requiring that attendees also have a booster shot or produce proof of a recent negative Covid test. 

But once the vaccine cards and test results are shown at the door, the weekend was expected to feature few relics of the pandemic. With the lifting of Washington’s mask mandate in February, few attendees at recent events in the city have worn masks or socially distanced as large indoor gatherings have resumed. 

But that return to normalcy hasn’t stopped the virus. Following the Gridiron Dinner, a much smaller marquee Washington event on April 2, at least 72 attendees soon tested positive, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Attorney General Merrick Garland. That event required proof of vaccination, but not a negative Covid test.

This week, Harris became the highest-profile Washington figure to be infected with the virus, announcing Monday that she had tested positive during a routine check at the White House before meeting with the president. 

Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, decided not to attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner amid Covid concerns. Fauci, 81, told The New York Times on Tuesday that he had decided not to attend the event “because of my individual assessment of my personal risk.”

Cases in the nation’s capital remain well below winter surge levels, but have doubled over the past month — and public health officials say those numbers likely represent an undercount because of an increase in at-home testing that is not necessarily reflected in public statistics. Still, hospitalizations in Washington and the surrounding areas have remained at their lowest levels of the pandemic. 

Biden’s decision to attend the Washington gathering sends a sign of a return to business as usual that the White House has been moving the country toward in recent weeks.

The president has increased his travel both domestically and internationally over the past month, and the White House is looking to restore traditional events put on hold by the pandemic — restoring White House tours; holding the annual White House Easter egg roll; and, as NBC News reported, weighing the possibility of the first state dinner of the Biden administration. 

With that shift, White House officials have warned that Biden could get infected with Covid at some point despite safety protocols at the White House — or at any of the events beyond it, such as Saturday's dinner.

“It is possible that the president, like any other American, could get Covid,” said White House Covid coordinator Ashish Jha this week. “The bottom line is, he is vaccinated and boosted.  He is very well protected.  He’s got very good protocols around him to protect him from getting infected. But there is no 100 percent anything. And I think the key focus has got to be, we have to continue protecting the president, that’s what the protocols around him are designed to do."