President Donald Trump faces a fresh challenge of convincing Americans if it would be safe to go back to the workplace after multiple positive coronavirus cases were found at his own.
First the president’s own military valets had been infected, later Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary tested positive delaying the departure of Air Force Two while a half-dozen other members of his staff were taken off the plane for further testing.
These cases obviously raises question, if it is so hard to maintain a healthy environment at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the most famous office address in the world, where staff members are tested regularly, some as often as every day, then how can businesses across the country without anywhere near as much access to the same resources establish a safe space for their workers?
“The virus is in the White House, any way you look at it,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama. “Whether it’s contained or not, we will know soon enough. But the fact that a place — secured, with access to the best means to mitigate harm — is not able to stop the virus has the potential of undermining confidence in any capacity to defeat it.”
The presence of the virus in both the West Wing and the residential floors of the White House brings home the dilemma facing the nation at a pivotal point in the pandemic. With more than 77,000 deaths in the United States so far and cases rising by the day, states and employers are wrestling with when and how to reopen without putting workers, customers and clients at risk.
But the federal government has not detailed the best way to minimize risk, much less avoid more deaths. Even as it has experienced positive tests of its own, the White House has so far blocked the release of a set of recommendations developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deeming them overly prescriptive. As a result, businesses have been left to make their best guesses with lives on the line.
Both Trump and Pence are now tested daily, and both tested negative after the latest infections were discovered. Staff members in proximity to them are also tested daily, as are guests. Congressional Republicans who visited Trump on Friday were spaced out around the table.
Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, told reporters that “we’ve put in some additional protocols over the last 48 hours” to reduce the risk and expressed confidence that the president could be protected. “This is probably the safest place that you can come to,” he said.
But neither Trump nor Pence regularly wears a mask, nor do most of their aides. The president hosted a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington on Friday to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany by inviting several veterans ages 95 and over, even though they were in the most vulnerable age group.
The White House infections further inflamed the debate about testing even as many states begin lifting restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. Trump has said testing is adequate for reopening even as public health experts said it must be much more robust to have a better map of the outbreak. The Harvard Global Health Institute estimated this week that the U.S. needs to do at least 900,000 tests a day by May 15, but is only doing about 250,000 now.