WASHINGTON — All those warnings from public health officials begging Americans to limit gatherings this holiday season amid a surge in coronavirus cases aren't stopping the White House from planning a host of festivities and holiday parties in the midst of a pandemic.
Monday's delivery of an 18-and-a-half-foot tall Fraser fir by horse-drawn carriage signaled the kickoff of the usual array of White House holiday events that will include the annual turkey pardon and Christmas and Hanukkah events.
"Attending the parties will be a very personal choice," said Stephanie Grisham, first lady Melania Trump's spokeswoman and chief of staff, referring to the plans. "It is a longstanding tradition for people to visit and enjoy the cheer and iconic décor of the annual White House Christmas celebrations."
The decision to move forward with indoor gatherings and project a sense of normalcy comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, top White House advisers and public health professionals across the nation have been pleading with Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving or spend the holiday with people from outside of their households.
As the weather has cooled, the virus has been spreading out of control, with cases and hospitalizations surging across the nation and more than 250,000 people dead.
The White House has already been the site of several suspected "super-spreader" events and dozens of staff — along with the president, his wife and two of his sons — have been infected, along with a long list of campaign aides, other advisers and allies in Congress.
Grisham said the White House would be taking precautions to provide "the safest environment possible" for those who choose to attend events. That includes smaller guest lists, requiring masks, encouraging social distancing on the White House grounds and hand sanitizer stations placed throughout the State Floor.
"Guests will enjoy food individually plated by chefs at plexiglass-protected food stations. All passed beverages will be covered. All service staff will wear masks and gloves to comply with food safety guidelines," she said.
Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, warned once again on Monday of the potentially dire consequences of gathering this holiday season.
"We're in a very difficult situation where the rate of infection, the slope of infections, are really very, very steep. So you might want to reconsider travel plans," Fauci said in an interview with Washington Post Live. He added that indoor holiday gatherings "as innocent and wonderful as they sound" should be kept to a minimal number of people, preferably "just members of a household" and also warned of a potential "surge superimposed upon a surge" if precautions aren't taken.
Fauci predicted the country could see "well over" 300,000 deaths by the end of the year "if we don't we turn things around."
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Monday repeatedly evaded questions about indoor holiday parties scheduled at the White House while calling other Americans' indoor gatherings potential "super-spreader" events.
"I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus, by any measure: cases, positivity, hospitalizations, deaths," he said on on ABC's "Good Morning America." "So I'm asking Americans — I'm begging you — hold on just a little bit longer. Keep Thanksgiving and the celebrations small and smart this year … do it outdoors if you can, keep it small, ideally less than 10, and prepare beforehand."
Pressed on whether he had concerns about White House holiday plans, Adams said that best practices "apply to the White House, they apply to the American people, they apply to everyone. We want you to stay safe so we can get to a vaccine."
Not long after, the first lady attended a small outdoor ceremony on the White House driveway to mark the arrival of the large Christmas tree that will adorn the White House Blue Room.
Mrs. Trump inspected the Fraser fir tree, smiled, waved to cameras and chatted with masked drivers of a carriage pulled by Clydesdale horses as the brass section of the U.S. Marine Band played Christmas carols.
The National Christmas Tree Association said that, in normal years, "the selection of the White House Christmas tree is a media event at the NCTA Champion Grower's farm attended by 100 or more people to observe the White House team select the perfect tree for the Blue Room."
It added that "2020 is far from a normal year — there was no selection event this year."
On Tuesday, the holiday events will continue at the White House as President Donald Trump participates in the annual pardoning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey at a ceremony in the Rose Garden.
The turkeys – Corn and Cob – arrived Sunday at the luxury Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington and photographers were invited there Monday, as they are every year, to capture the fowl strutting around inside their hotel room.
The first family has canceled its annual Thanksgiving week trip to Florida and will be gathering at the White House instead of Trump's Mar-a-Lago club, where he is typically joined by hundreds of dues-paying members.
President-Elect Joe Biden, meanwhile, has said that there will be only three people at his Thanksgiving table this year because of the virus
"I got a big family you've probably heard a lot about. We do everything together," he said during a virtual roundtable with health-care workers. This year, however, "There are going to be three of us because you can't mix the families that have been away, that haven't been quarantining."
Trump has remained largely behind closed doors since he lost his bid for reelection. He has refused to concede, lodging baseless allegations of voter fraud in an attempt to subvert the results.