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Coronavirus changes business as usual at White House

Coronavirus changes business as usual at White House

by MORGAN CHALFANT | The Hill  |  Published on March 13, 2020

President Trump is postponing events and avoiding handshakes as life at the White House is transformed by the coronavirus pandemic breaking out across the country.

The changes are affecting the president and his team, along with the press and others who work or visit the White House.

Tours have been suspended, and reporters are being told by the correspondent’s association to work from home when they can and practice social distancing measures in the close press quarters.

The developments reflect a growing pattern of what’s happening across the country, as major events are postponed or cancelled, schools temporarily close and other steps are taken to lessen person-to-person contact.

The closures are part of an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus throughout the United States, as public health officials warn of the danger of having a large spike in infected patients at a single time.

The changes at the White House represent a dramatic turnaround.

Even earlier this week, it was business as usual for Trump.

He attended a fundraiser on Monday and participating in a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House for retired Army Gen. Jack Keane on Tuesday with a crowd of government officials and other guests.

But as the seriousness of the situation set in across the country and the number of confirmed cases surpassed 1,000, the White House cancelled a planned trip by Trump to Nevada and Colorado this weekend.

Trump’s presidential campaign on Wednesday also postponed an event next week in Milwaukee, Wis., where Trump was to speak. It had been announced the previous day.

On Thursday, a morning after delivering a sober address on the virus from the Oval Office, Trump signaled he is likely to cancel plans to hold a rally in Tampa, Fla., that hasn’t yet been formally announced by his campaign, saying he didn’t want backlash and that people needed a “little separation” until the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

At an event with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Trump and his fellow leader acknowledged they purposefully didn’t shake hands when they met, a practice health officials have also suggested in order to limit contact.

“Well, we didn’t shake hands today. We looked at each other, we said, what are we going to do? It’s sort of a weird feeling. We did this,” Trump said Thursday as he and Varadkar gestured to one another and laughed.

“It’s a very strange feeling. I was never a big handshaker, as you’ve probably heard, but once you become a politician, shaking hands is very normal,” Trump, who is a known germaphobe, continued.

Trump has been criticized for downplaying the threat of the virus, and critics noted that as recently as March 7, there was video of him shaking hands at his Mar-a-Lago resort with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. A top aide to the Brazilian leader has since tested positive for the virus.

Even so, the White House says that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will not be tested for the coronavirus.

Trump previously compared the coronavirus to the flu, suggested it was safe to hold campaign events and predicted the number of confirmed cases would decline.

Trump’s rallies attract throngs of people packed closely into an arena and are precisely the type of event that public health experts recommend should be avoided in order to prevent the virus’s spread.

After saying the Tampa even would not go forward, Trump on Thursday said he wanted to remain in Washington to address the crisis.

“We have a lot of things that we’re moving around because of what is happening and because I want to be here,” he said during the Oval Office meeting with Varadkar. “This is the nerve center, I want to be right here. I don’t want to be flying around in airplanes all over the place.”

The effect of the coronavirus has been felt across government, with the Pentagon implementing “social distancing” measures at briefings and the Securities and Exchange Commission encouraging Washington, D.C., workers to work from home after an employee was suspected of contracting coronavirus.

It is possible that federal agencies could eventually order employees to work from home, something the Office of Personnel and Management (OPM) says is a decision ultimately left up to each individual agency.

OPM issued guidance to federal agencies over the weekend encouraging them to review and update their emergency plans, including telework policies. It is unclear whether the White House is considering telling employees to work from home.

“As we have been telling all Americans, White House staff are encouraged to adhere to CDC guidelines and make common sense choices such as washing your hands often or staying home if you feel ill,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told The Hill when asked about guidance being given to employees.

Meanwhile, reporters are also taking extra precautions. Dispensers of hand sanitizer were set up in the press area of the White House this week.

The White House Correspondents Association board also sent a memo cautioning reporters who feel “even the slightest bit ill” not to work from the White House, encouraging telework when possible and urging members to exercise social distancing techniques and hygiene measures.

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