Washington wonders: Is it finally OK to party?

WASHINGTON — After three years of apologetic cancellations and unsatisfying virtual get-togethers, mask mandates and vaccine checks, social distancing and plastic screens, Washington, D.C., is ready to party again like it's 2019 — or, well, just about any other pre-pandemic year, when packed hotel ballrooms and crowded bars inevitably marked the arrival of the holiday season in the nation’s capital.

According to Politico, the White House alone has some 20 celebrations planned in the coming weeks. Earlier this week, the White House hosted its traditional ball for members of Congress, followed by one of two receptions for members of the media, for which invitations have been a sought-after commodity.

Cautiously, Washington is getting back into a party mindset, wondering if this time around — fingers crossed! — the streak can last.

"We miss having people in the People's House," White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo said ahead of Biden's first state dinner, held in honor of French President Emmanuel Macron, last week. Given the dour mood in D.C. for much of the last three years — a mood that can be chalked up to the coronavirus, the economy, violence at home and war abroad — the hopeful optimism was widely shared.

But for that longing to be alleviated, uncomfortable realities have to be put aside. Some 300 people are still dying daily from COVID-19. For the most part, the people who have suffered from the medical and social ravages of COVID are more likely to be working at events like a state dinner than attending them.

That uncomfortable reality poses a problem for an administration that has made health equity a primary goal. At same time, Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum are tired of the relentless anxiety the coronavirus has presented over the last three years. "Hot vax summer" never materialized; "herd immunity" never arrived. How seriously one took the pandemic became a matter of individual choice.

And for all of the credentialed experts packed into the Beltway’s circumference, the elites and power brokers of Washington are no different from the millions of Americans who want to have a normal holiday season without endangering themselves or others.

“Parties are back. People are eager to celebrate with friends this holiday season and put the lockdown life in the rearview mirror,” said Alexandra Preate, a public relations executive who has worked with top conservative figures. Next week she is throwing a party for Arthur Laffer, the supply-side-economics evangelist.

The Biden administration — whose upper ranks include plenty of high-profile extroverts — believes that with the availability of powerful treatments like Paxlovid and updated vaccine boosters, letting some pandemic anxiety go is justified (and, considering how corrosive social isolation can be, perhaps even necessary).

"We're now at a point where COVID doesn't have to rule our lives," said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House pandemic response team coordinator, in an October interview with a Boston-area public radio affiliate. "We don't have to take extraordinary precautions the way we did two years ago or even a year ago."

In other words, party on — but don’t forget to wash your hands. And try not to sneeze on strangers. In fact, best not to sneeze on anyone. Abstain from coughing, too.

"There is the recognition that COVID is here to stay," said public health expert Dr. Leana Wen, whose thinking on the coronavirus pandemic has tended to track closely with that of the White House. "Therefore, we need to use tools that allow us to live with the virus while resuming our normal activities. The White House is right to model this — to hold holiday celebrations while continuing to urge that people become up-to-date with vaccines and to access treatments if eligible," Wen told Yahoo News in an email.

Asked about what kind of public health protocols the White House would implement for last week's state dinner, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre alluded vaguely to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to keep gatherings safe. "I'm just going to point you to their website," she said curtly when pressed for elaboration.

Hours later, Jean-Pierre was one of the several hundred people to stroll into the White House for the first state dinner since the fall of 2019, when President Donald Trump hosted then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The Biden state dinner brought celebrities like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stephen Colbert and John Legend to Washington, which has been somewhat slower to reopen than other American cities. Even the likely next speaker of the House, committed Biden antagonist Kevin McCarthy, was there. Ideological differences with the president weren't going to keep him away.

As for the party itself, it lasted until 1 a.m. Nobody slipped their mask back on after each sip of Napa Valley Chardonnay or bite of butter-poached Maine lobster because, as far as it was possible to tell, nobody wore a mask to begin with. Although being in proximity to the president still requires a same-day negative coronavirus test, the state dinner was proof of how thoroughly most other pandemic restrictions have been left behind by a White House that was long seen as overly cautious.

After all, Biden continued to mask outdoors well into 2021, despite the fact that the practice likely has little added benefit in an open-air setting. Last Thursday, the Bidens and Macrons did enough embracing to make anything resembling social distancing an impossibility.

"For the first state visit of the United States in three years, we wanted to make sure we essentially savored every minute," an American official confided to the New York Times afterward.

Nor is the White House alone in the capital in trying to chart a post-pandemic social future. Pace-setting hosts are throwing regular parties again, and downtown bars are as crowded as they have been in recent memory — even if many D.C. office buildings remain close to empty.

Washington had last partied with anything approaching abandon at the end of April, to mark the first White House Correspondents' Association dinner since the start of the pandemic. But the festivities had a tenuous feel, as Omicron subvariants were then spreading through the United States. Only weeks before, dozens had been infected at a Gridiron Club event, leading to questions about whether Washington elites were too cavalier about public health.

The questions frustrated the White House but also put a damper on what was supposed to be something of a spring awakening.

Having attended the Gridiron affair, a weary Dr. Anthony Fauci — then, and now, the president's top pandemic adviser — backed out of the WHCA dinner, potentially sending a signal that the event was not a good idea. And maybe it wasn't. Master of ceremonies Trevor Noah, the "Daily Show" host, acknowledged the anxiety with a joke that deemed the gala "the nation's most distinguished superspreader event." Afterward, a spate of attendees reported testing positive for COVID-19, though none appeared to get seriously ill.

Having declared a "summer of freedom" in 2021 only to be swamped by a new wave of infections, Biden abstained from similar pronouncements in 2022. He caught COVID-19 in July, leading to intense media scrutiny of his behavior before, during and after his infection period. Then the infection passed, and so did the questions.

Determined to make the most of his time in the White House — which, if he either does not seek reelection or loses his reelection bid, could end in two years — Biden has traveled extensively in recent months. And when in Washington, he has not shied away from hosting the kinds of receptions that would have incurred the wrath of public health experts in 2021.

The week following the state dinner for Macron saw a fresh round of celebrities arrive in D.C., this time for the 45th annual Kennedy Center Honors. This time it was George Clooney (or, as Biden called him, “Amal Clooney’s husband”), Gladys Knight and Bono, among others.

And there again was the president, who invited the honorees to the White House for a reception.

Fauci was there, too, striding in smiling and maskless.

"The clear message is that it's time to celebrate the holiday season with a semblance of normalcy," Georgetown public health expert Lawrence Gostin told The Hill.

It is not the first time Washington has tried normal, only to be reminded that these are acutely abnormal times. Trump did hold holiday parties in the winter of 2020, after the bitterly contested presidential election whose results he tried to deny. Vaccines were not widely available at the time, and the gatherings were seen by many as a sign of the outgoing president's refusal to take the pandemic seriously.

Biden held a Fourth of July barbecue in 2021 during which he declared "freedom" from the coronavirus. But the Delta variant had other ideas, quickly frustrating the president's intentions. The 2021 holiday season saw the arrival of a new, even more transmissible variant — Omicron — which led the White House to cancel planned celebrations.

So far there have been no cancellations emanating from the White House this holiday season, no superspreader events. Tenuously, a little uncertainly, the nation’s capital is coming back to life.

Cover thumbnail photo: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

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