After Gridiron Dinner, a covid outbreak among Washington A-list guests

It was supposed to be an evening of lighthearted political satire and bipartisan fellowship among an elite cadre of politicians, journalists and public officials, just as it has been for much of the past 137 years.

Instead, the annual Gridiron dinner in Washington on Saturday appears to have been notable for a potential coronavirus outbreak among its A-list guests.

As of Wednesday morning, Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo had announced they had received positive results on coronavirus tests after attending the dinner at the downtown Renaissance Washington Hotel. On Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that he, too, had tested positive.

In addition, about a half-dozen journalists as well as members of the White House and National Security Council staffs said they tested positive after the event. Their names are being withheld because they have not announced their status publicly.

Several White House aides who tested positive did so after traveling to Poland last week with President Biden and before the Gridiron dinner. White House press secretary Jen Psaki — who attended the Gridiron dinner — reiterated Wednesday that all White House employees who come in proximity to Biden are regularly tested.

Biden didn’t attend the dinner but appeared via video.

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Tom DeFrank, a contributing editor at the National Journal and the president of the Gridiron Club, said in a statement that dinner guests were required to show proof of vaccination but that “a small number of our guests have reported positive tests since then.”

“We wish them a speedy recovery,” he said.

The white-tie-and-gowns dinner attracted about 630 guests, including members of Congress, the Cabinet, diplomatic corps, military and business.

Among those in attendance were Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert and Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other guests included Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri); Res. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.); Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and special presidential envoy John F. Kerry; Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell; Govs. Larry Hogan (R) of Maryland and Chris Sununu (R) of New Hampshire; and New York Mayor Eric Adams (D).

The possibility that senators at the dinner were infected could conceivably delay a Senate vote to confirm Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson. A vote could come later this week; no delays have been announced.

The dinner’s guest list also included former NFL great Emmitt Smith; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver; CBS host Jane Pauley and her spouse, “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau; Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova; “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan, PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff; ABC chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl, and Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan and editor Sally Buzbee.

After a predinner cocktail reception, guests sat together at long narrow tables for hours and watched satirical skits and songs performed by members. At the event’s conclusion, guests joined hands for the traditional singing of “Auld Lang Syne.”

The dinner was supposed to reflect a return to normalcy after being canceled the past two years because of the pandemic. Few guests wore masks or observed social distancing, according to people in attendance. Only the serving staff was consistently masked throughout the evening.

One guest said that while organizers asked attendees to show their vaccination cards at the door, there was no requirement to be tested.

The evening’s sketches, performed by veteran Washington journalists, parodied figures in both parties, although Republicans — such as former president Donald Trump, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Lauren Boebert (Col.) and Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.), former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) — came in for the sharpest jabs. None of those figures were in attendance.

At one point, a performer dressed as Fauci sang from the stage to the real Fauci in the audience: “Doctor, doctor, give me some clues, we’ve got a bad case of covid blues.”

The Gridiron dinner is a smaller, more elite precursor to the better-known White House Correspondents’ Association gathering in late April. That organization’s president, Steven Portnoy, said earlier this week that it will require its dinner’s 2,600 guests to show a same-day negative coronavirus test, which they will be able to upload to an app.

The president typically attends the WHCA dinner, though Trump never did during his years in the White House. Biden has not yet announced his plans.

The Gridiron Club dinner appears to have been conducted with respect to the latest official guidelines for covid safety.

The CDC updated its guidelines on Feb. 25 to ease mask recommendations for the vast majority of the country, and all 50 states have lifted their mask mandates in recent weeks. More than 95 percent of the country, including DC, is classified by the CDC as having a low burden of disease, meaning the agency does not recommend a mask mandate.

But some experts have cautioned that the new CDC guidelines could leave the country unprepared in the event of another wave. The BA. 2 variant caused a sharp rise in cases in Europe and has become the dominant strain in the United States, although cases have not yet begun rising nationally. Some parts of the country, including the Northeast, are beginning to experience a modest increase in infections.

Outbreaks from events such as the Gridiron dinner could signal what is to come, said Abraar Karan, an infectious-disease physician at Stanford University. “You’ll have these big outbreaks that start slowly and then you’ll notice more of them. It’s not surprising to me there was this big outbreak at a gathering where people were testing afterward,” Karan said.

“We’re constantly testing the boundaries. Everybody is testing the boundaries a little bit. … We’re trying to see what’s a tolerable level of risk, but when you have a big outbreak, that makes everybody pause,” Karan said.

Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease doctor and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said there is no activity that comes without risk of covid-19 — or any other respiratory illness.

“There are going to be things like this that occur, whatever it might be, whether it’s covid-19, influenza, norovirus — a social gathering like that always has that kind of risk, and it would be surprising to not see that kind of thing happening,” Adalja said. “For some people, that’s an acceptable risk; for other people, it might not be, and that’s where we want to move to.”

Fauci, who said he has not tested positive, said he abided by CDC guidelines when deciding to attend the dinner. He said he made a personal decision that the risk of attending was low for three reasons: he is vaccinated and boosted, there was a requirement for proof of vaccination to enter the dinner, and DC is classified as having a low burden of disease by the CDC’s metrics. That classification also means individuals can go unmasked in indoor settings.

Fauci said he wore his mask during the reception but took it off to eat.

“We are in a situation where, as a population, we need to make a decision that is based on data as well as our own individual willingness to take whatever level of risk happens to be present that you’re making the decision about,” Fauci said. “I followed the CDC guidelines, which says it’s okay to be in an indoor setting without a mask. But if cases go up and CDC says now wait a minute, you’re in a red zone, you can be darn sure I won’t be going to any dinners. You go with what the situation is.”

This is a breaking story and will be updated.

Staff writer Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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