WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump painted an improving picture of the coronavirus pandemic Monday even as the threat of the virus hit home inside the White House, which increased precautions again in the wake of positive employee tests the previous week.
The White House on Monday began requiring that all staffers entering the West Wing wear a facial covering, and asked aides to avoid going there "unless you absolutely need to conduct in-person business in the West Wing," according to a memo sent to staffers.
The memo says staffers do not need to wear a mask at their desk if they can socially distance.
The decision comes days after a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump has repeatedly declined to wear a face-covering in public settings.
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been that any employee who comes into contact with a person who tests positive should wear a mask in the workplace for 14 days.
White House staffers returned in Monday morning to a thoroughly cleaned West Wing and new protocols around testing and masks after the president’s personal valet and Pence’s spokesperson both tested positive for the virus in recent days.
Secret Service members in close proximity to the president have begun wearing masks and visitors were asked additional questions before entering the White House grounds about whether they’d been experiencing any symptoms in addition to temperature checks. Staffers who are in regular, close contact with the president — roughly a dozen people — are also being tested daily.
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Trump on Monday continued to push forward his narrative of an improving situation, tweeting that the “coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere” and accusing Democrats of not opening their states sooner because they are trying to hurt his re-election efforts.
While the number of cases have been declining in some areas, like New York, other regions continue to see an increase or a plateau in new cases. Nationally, the U.S. has seen at least 20,000 new cases per day for more than a month, according to data by Johns Hopkins University.
While those in close contact with the president, such as those serving his food, have begun wearing masks, there is no policy requiring staffers to wear masks in the West Wing with its close working quarters and narrow hallways. Several senior administration officials were seen entering the West Wing without masks on Monday morning.
During a news conference Monday afternoon in the Rose Garden where Trump sought to tout U.S. testing abilities, top officials and aides — including Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner — were wearing masks and seated 6 feet apart. Rather than all the speakers sharing the same microphone, the president had his own podium and there was a second one off to the side for other officials.
Speaking without a mask, Trump said the federal government would help states get testing supplies, something governors have been asking for help with for weeks.
"We have met the moment, and we have prevailed," Trump said. He later added that he was referring to testing, not the virus itself.
He also said that the U.S. would "transition into greatness," and that next year would be one of the "best years we ever had."
Several key figures were not in attendance. Three members of the White House coronavirus task force said over the weekend they would self-quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, will follow some form of quarantine for 14 days along with Stephen Hahn, the head of the Food and Drug Administration.
White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller is also expected to work remotely for the time being, a White House official said. Miller tested negative for the virus after his wife, Katie Miller — Pence's spokesperson — tested positive.
Pence, who had spent the weekend staying away from the White House, arrived at the White House campus Monday morning for a video conference with governors. Pence did not attend the afternoon news conference.
White House staffers received a memo late Friday from the White House management office encouraging aides to “practice maximum telework” and to “work remotely if at all possible,” re-emphasizing a policy that has been in place since March, an administration official said.
Staffers in the East Wing who work for the first lady are all working from home, and if they do need to go into the White House they are tested and practice social distancing during meetings, said Stephanie Grisham, a spokesperson for Melania Trump.
Many senior officials were seen arriving at the White House on Monday, including Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino, and trade adviser Peter Navarro, along with a number of lower-level aides.
But not all of them were unfazed by the recent West Wing cases.
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"It is scary to go to work," economic adviser Kevin Hassett said Sunday. "I was not part of the White House in March. I think that I'd be a lot safer if I was sitting at home instead of going to the West Wing. But, you know, it's a time when people have to step up and serve their country."
The added measures at the White House go beyond what most Americans can expect in their own workplaces.
When asked if testing at meat production plants could be ramped up, as testing at the White House has, a senior administration official downplayed the idea. “We need to make sure we keep the president of the United States safe and secure, so we're taking probably extra precautions here at the White House," the official said. "But we're working with all vulnerable populations and with industries that are essential.”