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White House hosting indoor holiday parties despite warnings from top health officials

A White House official said they're "providing the safest environment possible" but many attendees at a holiday party on Tuesday did not wear masks.
Image: Holiday decorations at the White House in Washington
Holiday decor adorns the Cross Hall of the White House on Nov. 30, 2020.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The White House is planning to host as many as 20 indoor holiday parties this season, even as its own coronavirus task force warns states that the pandemic is "in a very dangerous place" and top health officials have cautioned against indoor celebrations.

One such party was held Tuesday night and included a brief appearance by President Donald Trump. Pictures from the event show several attendees not wearing masks, including Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel. McDaniel tested positive for Covid-19in late September after spending time with the president, who also tested positive around the same time.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany shrugged off the concerns that the gatherings could set a bad example for Americans as they head into the holiday season.

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"If you can loot businesses, burn down buildings, engage in protests, you can also go to a Christmas party. You can celebrate the holiday of Christmas, and you can do it responsibly," she told reporters. "We will engage in the celebration of Christmas," added McEnany, who tested positive for the coronavirus during an outbreak in the White House in October.

Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump's chief of staff, said in a statement earlier Wednesday that the White House would “celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah while providing the safest environment possible."

Among the safety measures that Grisham said would be in place were smaller guest lists and mask requirements, with social distancing also "encouraged." Photos from Tuesday's event, however, showed a crowded party with no social distancing and a number of guests without masks.

Grisham also cited other safety measures, such as "food individually plated by chefs at plexiglass-protected food stations" and covered beverages.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has scheduled a number of indoor parties, including one at the State Department that has seen 900 people invited, The Washington Post reported.

"We’ve taken every precaution to thin out the number of individuals in all spaces at one time, and plan to keep outdoors space open and available to attendees, weather permitting," said a State Department spokesperson in response to the report, adding that they plan to follow all health officials' guidelines including attendees being required to wear masks.

State Department leadership has instructed employees to avoid hosting non-mission critical events in person and “opt for virtual events,” even as Pompeo invites hundreds to celebrate the holidays at large indoor parties.

“The COVID-19 pandemic will bring some changes to this year's holiday season,” a Nov. 25 notice to employees said. “With much of our team working remotely and in light of rising cases across the country, the Bureau of Administration wants to reiterate the Department's commitment to responsible physical distancing and mission-critical only gatherings.”

While the holiday parties at the State Department will offer guests festive alcoholic drinks and traditional holiday fare, the notice also made clear employees would not have the same privilege warning, “[Management] will not be approving alcohol waivers for gatherings in Department facilities during this time.”

Safety measures were in place at the White House for an election night celebration, although not many were wearing masks. Several attendees of that event, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, tested positive for the virus afterward.

A series of September White House events, both indoors and outdoors, introducing Amy Coney Barrett as Trump's Supreme Court nominee also became what Dr. Anthony Fauci called a "superspreader."

Grisham said of the holiday celebrations that attendance "will be a very personal choice."

"It is a longstanding tradition for people to visit and enjoy the cheer and iconic decor of the annual White House Christmas celebrations,” she said.

A White House coronavirus task force report distributed to states earlier this week and obtained by NBC News on Wednesday warned "the COVID risk to all Americans is at a historic high," and said “it must be made clear that if you are over 65 or have significant health conditions, you should not enter any indoor public spaces where anyone is unmasked due to the immediate risk to your health."