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

It was meant to be an evening of light-hearted political satire and bipartisan camaraderie among an elite cadre of politicians, journalists and public servants, as it has been for most of the past 137 years.

Instead, the annual Gridiron dinner in Washington on Saturday appears to have been notable for a possible coronavirus outbreak among its high-profile guests.

As of Wednesday morning, Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced they received positive coronavirus test results after attending the dinner at the Renaissance Washington Hotel downtown. On Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that he, too, had tested positive.

In addition, half a dozen journalists as well as White House and National Security Council staff said they tested positive after the event. Their names are withheld as they have not publicly announced their status.

Several 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

Tom DeFrank, editor of the National Journal and president of the Gridiron Club, said in a statement that diners were required to show proof of vaccination, but “a small number of our guests have since reported positive tests.” .

“We wish them a speedy recovery,” he said.

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-Missouri); 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) 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 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 normal 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.

A guest said that although organizers asked attendees to show their vaccination card at the door, there was no need 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. Variant 2 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 nationwide. 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.

Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said no activity comes without the risk of covid-19 — or any other respiratory disease.

“There are going to be things like this happening, no matter what, whether it’s covid-19, flu, norovirus – a social gathering like that always presents that kind of risk, and there would be surprising not to see that kind of something happening,” Adalja said. “For some people, it’s an acceptable risk; for others it may not be, and that’s where we want to go.

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.

This is a breaking story and will be updated.

Writer Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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