The White House was always one of the busiest social hubs in Washington, accustomed to hosting at least three to five events per day, ranging from meetings with dignitaries and VIPs to smaller luncheons or private dinners. That is, until Covid-19.
Since late March, the White House has been on virtual lockdown. This week, however, party preparation began anew. Tables popped up on the South Lawn, installed by staff who had been cut back from in-person work several weeks earlier out of an abundance of caution, but who have returned this week to set up the White House July Fourth party.
For White House social secretary Rickie Niceta and the White House team of chefs and butlers, housekeeping staff and ushers, the slow build back to normal begins with a party in the midst of a pandemic.
The chairs for the tables, however, are not the typical eight or 10, but instead just four – only enough to accommodate a socially distant seating plan. There will be tablecloths and flowers, some food – including grill stations for hot dogs and hamburgers (adorned with tiny American flags attached to toothpicks) and nonalcoholic drinks – details overseen by Niceta, herself one of the staffers who had since late March been doing her job from home.
Waitstaff, who were typically bare-handed for previous outdoor White House events and white-gloved for more formal ones, will this July Fourth be wearing disposable rubber gloves and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-advised face masks, which will be constantly swapped out for fresh ones, a White House official told CNN.
The guest list for the picnic will reflect the health trauma the country is still grappling with. “Guests will be made up of front-line workers and their families,” deputy press secretary Judd Deere told CNN, “including law enforcement, doctors, nurses and others, as well as members of the military and their families.”
Members of the Trump administration will also be in attendance, Deere said. Though Deere did not specify how many guests were expected, the White House says the invitation-only event, which culminates in watching flyovers of military aircraft and a large-scale fireworks show on the National Mall, will include social distancing.
“As President Trump has said, this year’s Independence Day celebration will have a different look than 2019 to ensure the health and safety of those attending,” Deere said.
Yet Friday evening, Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, attended a program and fireworks display at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where several thousand were blatantly non-socially distanced, packed closely together in amphitheater-style bleacher seating. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, said earlier in the week during an interview that those who didn’t want to maintain the CDC guidelines of staying at least 6 feet apart were welcome to attend.
“We told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home. But those who want to come and join us, we’ll be giving out free face masks, if they choose to wear one. But we won’t be social distancing,” Noem said on Fox News.
Back at the White House on Thursday, boxes of face masks were being unpacked, thousands of them ready to be placed with hand wipes and sanitizer into personal pouches of protection for each guest. Passing out masks and enforcing personal space feels incongruous at the home of a President who, while publicly saying he is “fine” with the idea of face masks, has shunned wearing one of his own in front of press. In fact, Trump’s anti-mask status has helped turn the decision to wear a mask or not into a political issue.
The Fourth of July wasn’t always as politically charged as it is this year, with a country in the middle of a cultural and social reckoning, as well as a pandemic, and an election looming just four months away. Thomas Jefferson in 1801 was the first American President to hold a July Fourth celebration at the White House, complete with horse races on the North Lawn and the Marine Band (who will also play at Saturday evening’s party) performing patriotic tunes in the entrance hall, according to the White House Historical Association’s research.
In 1850, though at the still-under-construction Washington Monument and not the White House, President Zachary Taylor attended Fourth of July festivities and consumed ice water and cherries and other raw fruit. Taylor died at the White House five days later from a gastrointestinal illness that historians believe to be cholera.
Shortly thereafter, in the early 1900s, when the grounds of the White House were virtually open to anyone who wanted to stroll them, the Fourth of July made it a favorite picnic spot, kicking off the tradition of an evening on the sprawling lawn, admiring fireworks that were set off over the National Mall.
A favored photo op for many a president and first lady in more recent decades has been standing on the second-floor Truman Balcony of the White House, a spacious outdoor area commissioned by former President Harry Truman in 1947 that extends from the Executive Residence’s Yellow Oval Room, looking into the distance at the fireworks.
Last year, Trump went all out for the Fourth of July, with an expansive and expensive display of patriotic firepower on the Mall. The first couple opted not to sit at the White House for the festivities, but instead watched from the Lincoln Memorial, overlooking a massive crowd who cheered in the rain as displays of military might flew overhead.
This year, with all that coronavirus continues to rob from Americans, the celebration will likely be under the weather in a different way.