Journalists who work at the White House have been on high alert about the coronavirus since March, but the issue took on even greater urgency Friday with a mini-outbreak in the press room following President Donald Trump’s crowded events and his own positive test for the virus.
Three journalists, including New York Times correspondent Michael Shear, tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday, as did a White House staffer who works with the press. The new infections prompted another round of anxiety and cautionary notes among those who cover the president.
The White House Correspondents’ Association urged its members to steer clear of the press room and the small warren of workspaces behind it inside the East Wing unless they have urgent business. In the first of a series of emails on Friday, the group’s president, Zeke Miller of the Associated Press, asked journalists who don’t have an enclosed office in the workspace and aren’t part of the press pool – the rotating group of reporters that follows the president and shares its reporting with other reporters – to stay away from the White House altogether.
The new infections coincide with a series of White House and Trump campaign events, including the formal introduction of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, in a Rose Garden ceremony last Saturday.
One reporter who covered the ceremony said journalists were confined to a penlike enclosure behind the seated guests with little space between them. Almost none of the invited guests wore masks, he said on background. The guests included Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has since tested positive for the covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
One of the newly infected journalists, whom the WHCA didn’t identify, was at the Rose Garden event on Saturday; he also rode in the press-pool van that followed Trump as he played golf on Sunday, according to the WHCA. The journalist began to experience symptoms on Wednesday. A second unidentified journalist, who covered a White House briefing on Sunday, received two positive tests on Friday.
In an interview, Shear said he went to the White House on Saturday, but didn’t cover the ceremony introducing Barrett. However, he was part of the press pool that covered Trump’s rally that night in Pennsylvania, and traveled to and from on Air Force One. Trump briefly spoke off the record to reporters on the plane on the way back from the rally. He noted that Trump didn’t wear a mask at that time.
Shear said he doesn’t know for sure who infected him or when, but he had contact with a number of people who could have passed the virus along, including Trump.
“Like people in a lot of other professions, I realize there’s some element of risk always” in covering the president, he said. “I feel strongly that reporting for the paper is worth some of that risk.”
But he added, “That said, I wish the White House had taken some of the recommendations that the [Centers for Disease Control] has been talking about for months,” such as requiring people to wear masks, practicing social distancing, and limiting crowd sizes. “There are some things the White House could have done to minimize the risk more.”
Despite the president’s diagnosis, the White House hasn’t announced any new preventive measures. Employees have been free to choose whether to wear a mask, even though the CDC recommends them in group settings.
The correspondents association on Friday stressed that reporters observe the rules nevertheless. “We can’t stress enough the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing and common sense, especially [within] the White House complex,” it wrote in one of its memos.
Too late for Shear, who said he started having symptoms, including a low-grade fever, aches and a cough, on Thursday. A test confirmed a positive diagnosis on Friday. He said he plans to quarantine at home, and is hoping to keep working through his illness.