The State Department hosted roughly 200 guests Tuesday night at the presidential guesthouse despite concerns of public health experts and a new positive coronavirus case on the premises since last week, according to two U.S. officials.
The party included a tour of the White House’s vaunted holiday decor followed by a self-guided tour across the street at Blair House, where foreign diplomats, their families, U.S. staffers and friends and acquaintances of the State Department’s chief of protocol convened.
A State Department spokesman said the “Holiday Cheer” reception that typically follows the tour was canceled this year because of concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus, but two bars were set up in the guesthouse as the face-shield-wearing catering staff poured drinks into holiday-themed paper cups. Guests unmasked to consume the beverages, causing people to congregate and create occasional choke points, the two officials told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
About 200 guests attended, among them the ambassadors of Afghanistan, Egypt, South Korea and Guatemala, officials said.
The tour is one of several holiday functions the State Department is hosting this week and next even as the Trump administration’s own health experts implore Americans to limit travel and avoid large gatherings amid a pandemic that has killed at least 285,000 people and infected 15 million across the United States.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is hosting two receptions next week, including one with an invite list of more than 900 people, which lawmakers have called on him to cancel.
Amid the poinsettias, chandeliers and meticulously decorated Christmas trees, children received “Be Best”-branded swag Tuesday night, such as backpacks, Frisbees and water bottles from first lady Melania Trump’s signature anti-bullying and wellness initiative. The department has a stockpile of “Be Best” merchandise that is often handed out when the first lady travels abroad. In the absence of a second Trump term, officials need to find a home for the surplus of gear, one U.S. official said.
“It’s time to get rid of the leftovers,” the official said.
The parties have prompted criticism from the American Foreign Service Association, a nonpartisan union that represents diplomats, which issued a statement Friday calling on the department to “reverse course and model responsible behavior in accordance with its own guidelines.”
The union noted that the department’s leaders have instructed embassies and consulates around the world to host only virtual holiday gatherings this year. “It is therefore disconcerting to hear of these plans, which not only go against the Department’s own guidelines but also health regulations in Washington, D.C. and the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the union said.
An email went out to State Department employees on Monday, saying a person tested positive for the coronavirus at Blair House on Friday. The person was on the first, second and fourth floors, and the space was cleaned according to CDC guidelines, said the email obtained by The Post.
Last week, a State Department spokesman said social distancing measures would be enforced and masks would be worn, but declined to comment about guests unmasking to consume beverages.