The White House will continue to press ahead with its Christmas festivities despite expert warnings that the US is at a “dire point” in its fight against coronavirus.
Monday’s delivery of an 18-and-a-half-foot tall Fraser fir by horse-drawn carriage signalled the kick-off of the usual array of White House holiday events.
These will include the annual turkey pardon as well as Christmas and Hanukkah events.
Stephanie Grisham, first lady Melania Trump’s spokeswoman and chief of staff, said: “Attending the parties will be a very personal choice.
“It is a longstanding tradition for people to visit and enjoy the cheer and iconic decor of the annual White House Christmas celebrations.”
The decision to move forward with the indoor gatherings comes despite warnings from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, top White House advisers and public health professionals across the nation.
Many have pleaded with Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving or spend the holiday with people from outside of their households.
As the weather has cooled, virus cases have surged and more than 250,000 people have died.
The White House has already been the site of several suspected “super-spreader” events. 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, advisers and Congress allies.
Ms Grisham said the White House would be taking precautions to provide “the safest environment possible” for those who choose to attend the events.
That includes smaller guest lists, mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing on the White House grounds and hand sanitiser stations placed throughout the State Floor.
She added: “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.”
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned once again on Monday of the potentially dire consequences of gathering this holiday season.
In an interview with Washington Post Live, he said: “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.”
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”.
He also warned of a potential “surge superimposed upon a surge” if precautions aren’t taken.
Dr Fauci predicted the country could see “well over” 300,000 deaths by the end of the year “if we don’t turn things around”.
US surgeon general Jerome Adams repeatedly evaded questions about indoor holiday parties scheduled at the White House while calling other Americans’ indoor gatherings potential “super-spreader” events.
He told ABC’s Good Morning America: “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, hospitalisations, deaths.
“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 (people), and prepare beforehand.”
Pressed on whether he had concerns about White House holiday plans, Mr Adams said: “(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 US marine band played Christmas carols.
The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) said: “(Normally) 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.
“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, named Corn and Cob, arrived at the luxury Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington on Sunday.
Photographers were invited there on Monday – as they are every year – to capture the birds strutting around inside their hotel room.
The first family has cancelled its annual Thanksgiving week trip to Florida and will be gathering at the White House instead. Normally they spend the holiday at Mr 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.
He told healthcare workers at a virtual roundtable: “I got a big family you’ve probably heard a lot about. We do everything together.
“(But this year) there are going to be three of us because you can’t mix the families that have been away, that haven’t been quarantining.”
Mr Trump has largely remained behind closed doors since he lost his bid for re-election.
Although he has said he is now directing his team to co-operate on the transition, he has refused to concede the election and vowed to “keep up the good fight”.
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