- Attendees are being asked to get tested before the event and wear masks if they aren’t vaccinated.
- A June Monmouth University Poll found many people still plan to hold back on July 4th celebrations.
- Around 67% of adults, and more than half of all Americans, have received at least one dose.
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is hosting his first large social gathering on the White House lawn Sunday, an event meant in part to signal that life is getting back to normal after more than a year of social distancing.
“America — we’re coming back,” says a television ad from the Democratic National Committee that’s running in 10 media markets across the country.
The Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn with more than 1,000 first responders, essential workers, military service members and their families comes at a time when other countries are masking up and locking down as a more contagious variant of COVID-19 spreads.
Even in the United States, coronavirus rates are rising in some areas with low vaccination rates.
Most White House aides are still working remotely.
The celebration is sure to conjure comparisons to big events during former President Donald Trump’s last year, including the much-talked about announcement of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, which was a COVID-19 superspreader event.
But that was held before vaccines were available, when less was known about how the coronavirus spread and when the prior administration did not prioritize coronavirus precautions.
Melissa K. Miller, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University, said the contrast with how Biden has handled the pandemic, including the big gains in vaccinations, will be good optics for the new administration.
“This is smart politically,” she said. “The only risk is if people get sick afterward.”
Attendees are being asked to get tested before the event and to wear masks if they are not vaccinated. But the White House, which has stayed away from endorsing vaccination requirements, is relying on the honor system.
Eric Toner, senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, said vaccination proof shouldn’t be needed if guests stay on the lawn.
“If it is outside and unvaccinated people are wearing masks, then I am not concerned,” he said in an emailed response.
Dr. Lewis Nelson, professor and chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, likewise said most of the risk is manageable. But a similar event may not be appropriate in every area, depending on the vaccination rate and prevalence of the virus.
“What happens at the White House doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what should happen everywhere else,” he said.
In fact, a Monmouth University Poll conducted in June found a sizable number of Americans still planned on holding back on their typical Fourth of July celebrations.
Just over half (54%) of American adults planned to attend an Independence Day barbecue this year, which is down from a pre-pandemic level of 69% with cookout plans in 2019.
Unlike two years ago, Republicans were somewhat more likely than Democrats to say they would be going to barbecues, parades or firework shows this year.
“As with other aspects of socializing during the pandemic, Democrats are more cautious than Republicans about venturing into crowds on July 4th,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Cheers to COVID-19 vaccination progress:Anheuser-Busch giving away free beer over July 4th holiday
Biden initially had less ambitious plans for the holiday. When he marked the one-year anniversary of the pandemic with a primetime address in March, Biden said he hoped that small backyard gatherings would be possible by Independence Day.
“That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together,” he said, “but it does mean small groups will be able to get together.”
At the time, only about one-quarter of Americans had been vaccinated.
Today, around 67% of adults, and more than half of all Americans, have received at least one dose.
Vaccines by state:How many people have been vaccinated in the US?
Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, has said the vaccination effort “succeeded beyond our highest expectations.”
“We are entering a summer of joy, a summer of freedom,” he said last week.
That’s despite the fact that the administration fell shy of the goal Biden set of getting a shot in the arm of 70% of adults by July 4th.
Officials have pegged the lag to lower vaccination rates among young adults, particularly people 18 to 26.
“We’ve got a big age gap problem,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said in a podcast interview this week.
But there’s a big geographical divide as well.
About 1,000 counties – mostly in the Southeast and Midwest – have vaccination rates below 30%.
“We expect to see increased transmission in these communities, unless we can vaccinate more people now,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday during the administration’s weekly pandemic briefing.
Still, Zients and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said it’s appropriate for the nation to recognize, through Sunday’s White House event, the progress made.
“We are celebrating as a country at the same time as we recognize the fact that we’re in a serious situation for those who have not been vaccinated,” Fauci said. “And the messages is: get vaccinated.”
Even if ordinary Americans don’t juxtapose the White House’s Fourth of July celebration with Trump’s rollout of Barrett’s nomination, comparisons will be all over cable news, Miller said.
“It’s not zero risk,” she said. “But given the precautions, it sounds like a politically good move, and a good signal to kind of come full circle from that March primetime address.”
Nelson said that while it would be optimal for attendees to show proof of vaccination, he understands why the White House – the “ultimate political organization” – wouldn’t want to do that.
The key, he said, is to continue to send the message that people need to get vaccinated.
“But I do think,” h added, “they have to project the idea that we have to develop some degree of normalcy.”
Mask guidelines:Experts break down the details.