Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is proceeding with plans to host holiday diplomatic parties with hundreds of invitees at the U.S. State Department despite coronavirus lockdown protocols and the department’s advice to its own employees, current and former officials told Foreign Policy.
The State Department’s plans to push ahead with annual holiday parties, even as the Trump administration’s own health experts urge people to avoid large gatherings as coronavirus cases surge across the United States, will heighten the risk of exposure and infection for State government employees and contractors required to staff the events, as well as the attendees themselves.
Outside Foggy Bottom, the United States reported more than 2,800 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, the highest single-day toll since the beginning of the pandemic.
But catering and waitstaff for the State Department work for contractors, and many are not provided with employer health insurance, according to four officials familiar with the matter, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. At least one member of the catering staff at the State Department who has worked on the eighth floor, where the department’s lavish diplomatic reception rooms and event spaces are, has already contracted the coronavirus. His family is organizing an online fundraiser to cover the cost of hospital bills, according to several officials.
To some officials, the parties highlight a broader issue with the Trump administration’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 270,000 Americans: Even as the administration’s top health experts are urging strict mask protocols and imploring Americans to stay home and avoid contact with other people, the president and his retinue are downplaying the impact of the virus and spurning the health procedures themselves.
“I’m flabbergasted. … An indoor event of this kind is dangerous on so many levels,” Ian Lipkin, the director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, told the Washington Post, which was first to break the story.
The State Department plans to follow guidelines “in compliance with health officials’ guidance” and require all attendees to wear masks and social distance, as well as receive temperature checks with forehead scanners before entering the events, a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy in an email response.
“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,” the spokesperson added.
The department is also splitting its annual diplomatic corps reception into two parties and organizing entrance into at least one of the events into three time blocks to limit the size of the entrance lines and gatherings. “We do not anticipate any problems in monitoring the number of individuals in these indoor spaces or [exceeding] the allotted numbers for indoor gatherings,” the spokesperson added.
The State Department declined to respond to follow-up questions, including on how attendees would keep masks on while eating and drinking, whether the events would add undue risk onto employees staffing the events, and why the department is not obligated to comply with the District of Columbia’s COVID-19 restriction protocols. The district has banned outdoor gatherings of over 25 people and indoor gatherings of 10 or more people.
Despite the State Department’s pledges to take all precautions for the events, some State Department officials and foreign diplomats in Washington who received invitations told Foreign Policy they do not plan to attend, citing fears that the events could spread the virus further in the Washington, D.C., area, which has already seen cases spike in recent weeks. Others said attending the events just didn’t feel right, given the risk posed to caterers, waiters, chefs, facilities managers, and other event staff.
“It’s not just about the 900 guests, but also those who don’t have the decision to decline an invite because it’s their job to serve at the pleasure of the Secretary of State—who could choose not to have these events out of concern for the greater good,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Reports about guests catching Covid [are] concerning, but what risk do the employees take who have to work all of these events out of obligation?”
The department has at least three holiday parties planned, according to invitations obtained by Foreign Policy and statements from officials.
On Dec. 8, the State Department chief of protocol, Cam Henderson, is hosting a holiday open house and tour of the White House, followed by a reception at the Blair House—the nearby presidential guest house. There is also an event scheduled for Dec. 15 for families of State Department officials who are serving at posts abroad that cannot accommodate bringing family members to live with them, including employees posted in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Dec. 16, another party is scheduled with the foreign diplomatic corps, including foreign ambassadors based in Washington. One official familiar with the matter said that in years past, such events could attract hundreds of guests. The Washington Post reported that over 900 invitations have been sent out overall.
In a message sent to department employees on Nov. 25 obtained by Foreign Policy, State Department Undersecretary for Management Brian Bulatao implored all staff to “closely adhere to our critical safety measures such as social distancing, wearing cloth face coverings, and staying home when ill.” He also said the department would encourage employees to work from home and avoid unnecessarily going into the office through the beginning of the new year, given the ongoing risks from the coronavirus.
“In light of rising cases across the country, and in accordance with the flexibility offered under Diplomacy Strong, domestic bureaus are strongly encouraged to maximize telework from November 26, 2020 through January 3, 2021. Supervisors should have employees come to the office only to perform duties that cannot be accomplished while teleworking,” Bulatao wrote, citing the department’s “Diplomacy Strong” plan for safely returning to work.
But for many, the rhetoric rings hollow.
“This superspreader event has all of us feeling like the messaging from the top is in direct conflict with their actions,” said one State Department official.
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